‘Popular’ books aren’t always right

Since back when I was a priest, and today as a professional counselor, people buy me little, popular wisdom books for Christmas. By "little" I mean small. Sometimes as small in dimension as a CD and not much thicker. By "popular" I mean the book is written by someone who has been a guest on "Oprah." The book and the writer have achieved commercial momentum. By "wisdom" I mean the book is written by someone who has achieved some celebrity for leadership and/or genius in wisdom and spirituality. They’ve been on "Oprah." In my lifetime, for example, there have been Ram Dass, Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson and the like.

The writers of these books present themselves to the world as spiritual teachers. To a man and woman, they are Hindu-y, Buddhist-y and decidedly logocentric. What I mean by "Hindu-y" and "Buddhist-y" is that few of them actually are Hindu or Buddhist. They tend to be Americans or at least born and raised in Western civilization. Somewhere along the way they studied Hinduism or Buddhism which they "piece and part" into a little, popular wisdom book. Hence, I think of them as Hindu-y. Buddhist-y. (Just as I think of modern, American civil religionists as Christian-y.)

Logocentrism is a spiritual/philosophical teaching advancing the literal idea that thoughts and words create reality. You remember Rene Descartes saying, "I think, therefore I am." A logocentrist says "I think, therefore it is."

This year I receive Don Ruiz’s book "The Four Agreements," published in 1997. The first agreement is "Be impeccable with your word," but he means something more than I would mean, using that same language. I would mean speak with integrity. Say what you mean and "own" what you say. Ruiz pushes the word "impeccable" to embrace some dimensions of logocentrism, saying human beings are constantly "dreaming" thoughts and idea, ordering their attention to certain priority thoughts and ideas, and then ultimately "agreeing with" particular thoughts and ideas.

But, I struggle with Ruiz’s second agreement: "Don’t take anything personally." Like a lot of people who toss me this advice, I think Ruiz is desperately overstating his case. He says it literally, but he can’t possibly mean it literally. Or can he?

As I read that chapter, I glean from Ruiz an idea — a very good idea — that goes more like, "Be very, very discerning about how seriously you take the words and behavior of others, always weighing the qualities of the relationship, always on the lookout to distinguish between authentic, useful feedback vs. regurgitated psychological projections. It is not necessary to personalize everything, because not everything is personal."

That’s a far cry from, "Don’t take anything personally." Reminds of unfaithful husbands or wives who likewise philosophize to their betrayed mates: "This isn’t personal. It wasn’t about you. It had nothing to do with you. It was just my own personal midlife crisis."

See, I’ve never heard a husband or wife on the receiving end of this manifesto whose response was, "Oh. I see. I feel ever so much better now, knowing that you boffing the bimbo behind my back wasn’t personal."

Betrayal is personal.

Then there is a quote from Byron Katie, who, until I got the book "Peace In the Present Moment," I had never heard of before:

Reality is always kind. It’s our story about reality that blurs our vision, obscures what’s true, and leads us to believe there is injustice in the world. When you believe that any suffering is legitimate, you become the champion of suffering, the perpetuator of it in yourself. It’s insane to believe that suffering is caused by anything outside the mind. A clear mind doesn’t suffer. That’s not possible.

Huh? Seriously, I’m either the least enlightened person ever, or

Find yourself a time machine, Ms. Katie. Go to Auschwitz, circa early 1940s. Inside a gate is a Jew whose hands have been tied behind his back. Then hands are then lifted by a rope pulled over a scaffold. Up, up, until the prisoner is lifted off the ground. It’s a kind of crucifixion. The weight of the body would often dislocate the shoulders.

Walk over. Sorry, you’ll have to bend down and look up if you want to talk to them eye to eye. Tell the prisoner that no suffering is legitimate. Tell him he’s "insane" because he thinks the pain he is feeling is not caused by his thoughts but by his sadistic captors. Tell him that you’re here to help him "clear his mind," so that he doesn’t have to suffer.

Seriously. I wanna see you do it.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or

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