Ma’am, please put the self-help book down.

Via on Jan 27, 2012

So, the other night in bed, while my husband and I were reading (hot, I know), he happened to glance over at the book I was sighing and “hmm”-ing about (I am one of those readers who can’t resist out-loud commentary.  I do this even when I am alone.  I also involuntarily make all the faces that the actors are making when I watch movies.  I am a full-body information in-taker. I can’t help myself.)  Anyhow, he looks at my book, he looks at me, and then he says:

“Are you sure you don’t want to read a novel?”

I immediately get mock-offended, “Yes, I’m sure I don’t want to read a novel.  I want to read this book. The one that I’m reading.”

“What does that even mean,” he asks, peering at the book’s cover as I try to curl it closed around itself, “the Art of Manifestation?”

“It’s about manifestation.” I say, “Now can you please leave me alone?”

In the hubby’s defense, he is not anti-books about manifestation.  He, not being steeped in the new-age literature soup that I am thoroughly boiled and braised in, actually thought that the “manifestation” being referenced was a much more esoteric and probably more nuanced thing than was actually being talked about in said book.  I don’t think any part of him thought I was reading a book about how to manifest things.  I think he thought I was reading a book about, oh, the spiritual world versus the physical world, or some such lofty stuff.  No, unfortunately not.  I, sadly, just want to learn to manifest stuff.

His encouraging me to read a novel was not born of some distaste for non-fiction, it’s just…I read a lot of self-help books.  And most of them, save a select few, just tend to make me anxious.  And, if you were married to me, you too would want to help me avoid excess anxiety, as I am very much that way wired.

I was 21 years old the first time I read a self-help book. I was trying to quit smoking.  I got myself a copy of The Easy Way to Quit Smoking, by Alan Carr, and I covered it in a brown paper bag, the way I’d learned to cover my textbooks in college, so no one could see what I was reading. (And, yes, I quit smoking.  And, yes, I attribute quite a lot of it to this book.)

The next self-help book I ever got was when I was 22 years old, and I was trying to recover from some crazy food issues.  I don’t talk about this period of my life, but I went through several years, when I was younger, of trying every which way possible not to eat food.  At my lowest point I was surviving on a diet of ephedrine, cigarettes, coffee, and one salad a day.  Anyhow.  No need for all the gory details…this is only to say that I had…some issues, around food.  And then, a sort of awakening, brought on by a real bottom-of-the-barrel moment, when I decided I needed to do something about it.  So…I went to the bookstore, and apparently the book gods were smiling on me that day, because without really knowing what I was looking for, I picked up a copy of Geneen Roth’s, Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating.

This was the first self-help book that really changed my life.

Geneen Roth had been a yo-yo dieter (to say the least) for most of her life.  She had been anorexic, she had been bulimic, she had been an overeater, an addictive eater, a no-carb girl, an all watermelon girl, a vegetarian, a protein-a-phile…you name it, she had done it.  And I, at this point in my life, really identified.  Because I was obsessed with food.  If you knew me during this period, you may not have known this, since, like any real (and dangerous) obsession, I kept it deeply packed and hidden away, but I, for several years of my life, spent nearly every waking hour thinking about what I could eat, what I had eaten, what I should be eating, how much I weighed, how much I should weigh…etc., etc..

So, when I started reading Ms. Roth’s book, and she talked about her own mental and emotional burn-out, when it came to eating prescription overload, I felt like I had found the right book.

Because she, Geneen, had tried every single diet and eating plan and eating disorder on the market, and all of them had left her in exactly the same predicament–confused and perhaps temporarily thinner, but no less unhappy.  And so she made a radical decision.  She decided that she would throw out all the prescriptions and just give her body, for once, exactly what it wanted.  Her hope was, that if she could just start listening to her own body…maybe IT would know what to do.  And because she had gained and lost weight a million times before, she knew that if the experiment failed, she could always go right back to The Zone Diet…or whatever was on her list at the moment.

So, she asked her body what it wanted.  And her body answered: chocolate chip cookies.

And for the next two weeks, Geneen Roth ate nothing but chocolate chip cookies.  She sat down at a table with a plate and fork and knife and ate plate-fuls of chocolate chip cookies.  She ate them for two weeks straight because for two weeks, every time she asked her body what it wanted, her body said: chocolate chip cookies.

Chocolate chip cookies were, it should come as no surprise, the food she had been denying herself for years. It was the food she loved, and feared, the most.

And then, miraculously, at the end of those two weeks, she asked her body again what it wanted, and this time her body said: baked potato.  

And that was the beginning of her long walk back to herself.

It gets me a little choked up just writing about this, because, you have to understand, I was living in a head and a heart so full of prescriptions at that time, the idea that I could abandon them, AND that something more truthful and more sustainable might arise in their place…was a revelation to me.  And it not only started my journey away from being a food obsessed person, it, I think, started me on a spiritual path.  Though I would not have known that, at the time.

It’s amazing to me when I look back, because, well…I rarely think about food in this way anymore.  Actually, I would say, I never think about food in this way anymore.  I never obsess about food or my weight.  Sure, I have days where I feel a little fatter or a little more slim, but for the most part, it’s just not a part of my conscious life.  And that is amazing to me, because at the time, if someone had told me that there was a future in which I never worried about my body in a way that ruined my day…I don’t think I would have thought that was possible.

The power of manifestation, yo.

Okay, but I’m way off track.  The point of all of this is, the other night, when I was reading (yet another) book about what I should and should not be doing, spiritually, and the husband asked me if I wanted to read a novel instead, what it felt like he was asking me was:

Are you sure you don’t want a chocolate chip cookie?

Yes, I want to read a novel!  Yes!  Yes, I would like to put down this book.  Yes, I would like to put down all of the books and the practices that I use to reinforce the idea that I am broken and I need to be fixed.  Yes, please.  Yes, I would like to just give the big middle-finger to the salads of my internal life and I would like to eat a goddamn chocolate chip cookie, please.  Yes, I would like to, finally, for once, really believe that I already know all of the things I am trying to learn to remember.  Yes, I would like to read a novel.  Yes.

So, I did.

I put down the book on manifesting, and I picked up a another book–this one a story about a doctor in the far east in the early part of the century.  A fiction.  A novel. A big romantic epic of a book.  And, you know what?  It’s delicious.

About Lia Aprile

Lia Aprile is a writer, actress and yoga teacher currently living in Los Angeles, CA. When she’s not peddling her headshots or perfecting her handstand, Lia can be found tending to her yoga blog, Shanti Town, which is definitely about yoga, but mostly about life (the messy kind). And, because the nerdiness just keeps on coming, she has also recently begun interviewing teachers and yoga luminaries for the Shanti Town Podcast, which you can now find on ITunes.

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26 Responses to “Ma’am, please put the self-help book down.”

  1. Karl Saliter Karl Saliter says:

    BRAVO, Lia! I highly recommend Murakami’s 1Q84.

    You neeeeed to read it. :) Happy to say it is

    1) a novel

    2) completely irrelevant to your article, except in that it is a novel

    3) awesome.

    I love the journey you just described, and the grey area. Yeah, some

    SH books are helpful and eye opening. And sometimes, our

    perfectly flawed eyes are just fine, thank you.

  2. Lia Aprile Lia says:

    Karl…oh, I love that! Book recommendations! I should have asked everyone to recommend a book. I'll try it out…though, I have to say, I've tried Murakami a few times before and have had trouble breaking the surface…but I am happy to try again!

    Thanks for reading!

    Lia

  3. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Loved this Lia. So nice to read something light and honest and human all at the same time.

    And as for the request that you didn't make:

    I recommend Iain M. Banks. Any of his 'Culture' novels. But, be warned, it's science fiction, and you might have to be:
    a) a bit of a geek, and
    b) a bit of a boy?
    to enjoy those books as I do. But the reason I recommend them is because they're all about a utopian technological society in which people have super-skills, and can be / have / do anything they want. They're quite dark books. Space Opera.

    Have I totally put you off or piqued your interest?

    • Lia Aprile Lia Aprile says:

      Ben,

      Oh no, I like it! I grew up on Star Trek and Red Dwarf, and when I was younger I was a big science fiction literature fan! Ender's Game…need I say mooooore? I am going to check these out, thank so much for the recommend!

  4. Samira says:

    very nice , thank you Lia. Books are good way to find your answers and food for soul

  5. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  6. lauren says:

    thank you

  7. Irene says:

    Thank you! I love this! Have you read any of Sarah Addison Allen's novels? They all involve wonderful food and magic. My favorite one is Garden Spells.

  8. Love this! I'm also a non-fiction book junkie. But every now and then I need to take a break and read something mindless and strictly entertaining. Recent non- life changing books I've read include: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, Untold Story by Monica Ali, Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

  9. Irene says:

    I felt SO identified with everything you've written…Even the part of being a Geneen follower :) The thought of "are we all so broken and messed up that there is a flourishing market for "self-help" books, has been with me for a while. The funny thing is that the "self" part of it is lost, really, because someone else is telling us how to fix ourselves. :) Every page I turn to, be it a book or the web, is overflowing with advice on how to think right, breathe right, feel right imagine right, be right….overwhelming feeling sometimes!!!! and I yearn for a good novel…many many times….written by someone who is creative in their own doing, just like me or you are surely capable of without so much help from outsiders.

  10. Anna says:

    I am just trying to get back to allowing myself to read at all. All books are cookies. Gorgeous novels are… German chocolate cake. I recently left my very long term relationship in which productivity had become the god ruling over the household. I know I want to read. But I cnan't do it. So, I asked friends to suggest books. No good. But, my dear mama just up and sent me a sweet, lovely book. I am reading it and loving it. It is still fits and starts, but I am walking back to books with it. It is called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I bet you might like it,too, sister.

  11. Cari says:

    LIa, I'd like to suggest Michael Ventura's "If I Was a Highway." An extraordinary collection of his essays – it makes my heart happy and I find some new little gem to examine every time I open it.

  12. Linda says:

    Oh my gosh! You must have been in my bedroom last night when my hubby told me that my obsession with self-help books is just a way to put off doing what I know (deep inside) that I need to do…but no, I can’t move forward until I “fix” myself, or learn a new skill, or join another “networking” group….etc., etc. Seeing this just the very next morning after our discussion is probably the kick in the ass I need to realize he’s (probably) right! No more procrastinating because I think I need to learn something before I can become who I really am! (And maybe I’ll read that novel a friend recommended the other day…something funny and mindless….yeah, that’s not procrastinating, is it?)

  13. Lia Aprile Lia says:

    All the book recommendations…I am so grateful! I'm going to (slowly) work my way through them all. Much appreciated! And many thanks to everyone who is reading and relating…the truth is, obsessive self improvement is obsessive self improvement…no matter what form it takes (food, spiritual practice, study, etc., etc., etc.) and it's so important to see and then (try to) breathe through.

  14. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Braja Sorensen
    Lost & Found in India
    Editor, Elephant Spirituality
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  15. melissa says:

    I can relate to your story… so much so that when I read it, I glanced around the room at the half a dozen stacks of books, all of which self-help or spirituality books… all half read- all but a few completed. :)
    I just subscribed to your podcasts, looking forward to listening.
    Warmly,
    Melissa,
    Fellow EJ contributor, http://www.elephantjournal.com/author/melissa-smi

  16. Lia Aprile Lia says:

    Tom…I can't wait to see your top ten list!

    Braja…thanks so much!

    And, Melissa…that will inspiration for me to record a new one! Eek!

  17. this is I read at least a few novels a year no matter what — the "self help" is always there and I do love to "learn" as well, but sometimes I need the cookie too, but i can't live on cookies alone – - I also need some nutrition :) but it's a balance! so BRAVO…

    last book I read I didn't even LIKE but i finished it and interestingly it put me off novels for a bit like bad movies will do to me sometimes. …(ps I loved Ender's game—wonder what I should try next — thinking i might hijack ben's recommendation :) )

  18. Valerie Carruthers ValCarruthers says:

    Congrats on breaking free of self-help strangulation, Lia. Killed myself for years with fads like Fit For Life and only screwed up my health because I was always starving. Nothing beats really hearing the body's innate wisdom.

    Btw, if you like big sprawling adventure/romance read Gregory Roberts' Shantaram set in Mumbai's underworld. It certainly has its violence but overall a great read.

    • Lia Aprile Lia says:

      Val,

      Thanks so much! Yeah, the book I'm reading right now is Cutting For Stone, which I am in LOVE with, and is quite the tome, but I am adding your recommend to my list!!

  19. Loved it. Too much time thinking and not being…..yeah, chuck the book, Lia!!! xo

    Moved it over to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Braja Sorensen
    Lost & Found in India
    Editor, Elephant Spirituality
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  20. Lia Aprile Lia says:

    Thanks, Braja!!

  21. Lia Aprile Lia Aprile says:

    Lynn,

    Right?! It's like a big ol' drink of water! Just to be able to quiet that part that says, oh no, this reading time should be spiritually productive, and instead just dive in just to dive in to great and beautiful words!

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