Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

How To Discover Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life

The End of Self Help by Gail Brenner

Have you ever wished for a simple approach to cut through all the negative stories, stale habits, and emotional hailstorms that likely dominate your life?  That’s precisely what Dr. Gail Brenner offers in her new book, The End of Self Help:  Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life*.

I’ve been following Gail’s blog for almost 5 years and deeply appreciate her exceptional writing, keen insight, and heart-felt motivation. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to read her first book and  interview her about its major themes.

Many of the ideas and practices Brenner presents in The End of Self-Help* resonate with my own approach to personal and spiritual development.  For example, Brenner proposes that happiness lies within and is accessible to you at all times once you have the right understanding and know how.

This is an in-depth interview.  So grab a cup of tea, get cozy, and please enjoy.

1.  Gail, what prompted you to write this book?

I’ve known that there was a book in me for at least 20 years, and I’m so excited that it’s now finding the light of day! I’ve been writing a blog for over 5 years, and I got to the point where I wanted to go deeper than I could in individual blog posts. That’s when the book began to take shape.

A fire burns brightly in me to know and live in peace and happiness and share this possibility with others. I’m passionate about the amazing fact that who we are is not the limited, unlovable person many of us think we are. When these false ideas about ourselves are seen clearly, the truth is revealed—that we truly can find our way to peace and happiness in any moment.

2.  Is there a problem with self-help? Why did you call your book, “The End of Self-Help?”

The incorrect assumption of self-help is that we are broken and damaged selves who need help. This assumption keeps us searching outside ourselves for the happiness and fulfillment we think we’re lacking. And it keeps us waiting for happiness rather than living it.

We then conclude that we’re inadequate, incomplete, and missing what we need to be whole. This is a painful way to live that unfortunately is highly reinforced by the self-help industry.

But when we challenge the idea of this damaged self who hopefully will get the right help to become happy at some future time, we discover that it doesn’t reflect reality. This idea of ourselves just isn’t true.

It’s a moment of grace when we make a U-turn with our attention and turn toward our in-the-moment experience to be curious about it, rather than waiting for something we think we don’t have.

This is the end of self-help because we no longer believe we’re a self who needs help. Instead, we look at what exactly is making us suffer right in this moment. And we find that when our attention is glued to old, distorted stories that we automatically live by, we’re not experiencing a happy moment.

But when we move our attention away from these stories to explore outside what the mind tells us, we realize we’re fully here—living, breathing, being, experiencing life right now—and we’re peaceful.

Resting as aware presence, we realize there’s nothing missing and no actual wounded person who needs to be fixed. This is what’s possible for all of us in any moment—to shed our ideas about personal limitation and to let ourselves be moved by the universal qualities of love and infinite potential.

3.  Do you think there’s a danger that people will misunderstand your true meaning when you say there’s “nothing wrong with you” and “nothing to change?”  Do you think people could misinterpret this to mean anything goes?

Yes, I do think these statements could be misunderstood, and that misunderstanding can show up in two ways. First of all, people might not believe that there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s an idea that sounds good, but it’s common to hold on tightly to the familiar belief that we’re damaged and need to be fixed.

Knowing our essential wholeness and genuinely feeling happy and fulfilled in the moments of our lives isn’t based on a belief—and this is where a lot of self-help strategies fail. It needs to be our living, breathing, real-life experience.

If you feel like something is wrong with you, don’t try to believe otherwise. Instead, get curious about your current experience of inadequacy and lack. What you’ll find is that thoughts and feelings arise that make you conclude you’re inadequate, but you don’t have to take them on as your identity. It’s amazing to discover that suffering is truly optional.

The second misunderstanding is in your question: “If you’re telling me I don’t need to change, then anything goes and things are just fine as they are.” If things are truly fine, then there’s no problem and life becomes a living celebration.

But if you believe you don’t need to change rather than actually knowing it in your bones, then there is something that’s asking to be explored. You’re probably experiencing or avoiding emotional pain or making choices that bring unhappiness to your life.

We all know what it’s like to be happy, peaceful, and loving. If that’s not truly your living reality, then begin to get honest about your in-the-moment experience of suffering. Don’t skip over anything. Welcome it all in the loving space of aware presence without resistance, and you’ll realize that everything you’ve been searching for is available right now and always.

4. We think so much. What is the antidote to compulsive thinking? How do we get out of our heads?

I’ve discovered in my own experience as well as with clients I’ve worked with in my psychotherapy practice that compulsive thinking is fueled by unexamined fear. Once I realized this, every time I became aware that I was caught in thinking, I stopped and felt the physical sensations of fear in my body.

I shifted my attention to the field of presence and let these jittery, agitated sensations come and go. I didn’t try to accomplish the goal of getting rid of the compulsive thoughts. Rather, I expanded my attention beyond thinking to open to the sensations that were arising. I discovered that I couldn’t compulsively think and be a welcoming presence to these sensations at the same time, and I felt more relaxed.

Doing this over and over, the pressure of thinking subsided. And whenever it appears now, I don’t give it much attention.

In my book, I devote a whole chapter to the puzzle of thinking. Besides opening to sensations and emotions, I detail many other suggestions for dealing with the strong, conditioned tendency to think. You might realize the stressful impact of thinking and choose to not engage with it or hear thinking as sound in your mind that doesn’t actually have any meaning (blah…blah…blah…).

Ultimately, it’s essential to understand that most thinking is a strategy to help us have control over what’s actually uncontrollable. We can’t know what will happen in the next second. And when we live from our ideas about the past, we’re creating a false reality and missing what’s actually here.

Thinking about the past, present, and future keeps us from living fully right now. Try losing interest in thinking altogether and let yourself truly not know. You’ll directly experience this now moment—so fresh and alive!

5.  In my own experience as a meditation instructor, I find that people quite easily understand and embrace the idea of two aspects of mind:  the essence of mind or pure awareness and the projections of mind, the thoughts and emotions.  However, the thought of no self or emptiness can feel unnerving.  How do you reassure people?

Let’s first clarify what we mean by no self and emptiness. The reason we suffer is that we take ourselves to be something that we’re not. We think we’re a separate self, a person in the world defined by our distorted thoughts and painful emotions.

But, as surprising as it may seem, at the core, we are not these separate selves. If just for a moment, you flip the switch to turn off thinking, are you still here and alive? There’s a palpable aliveness that is our steady state whether or not we’re thinking. It’s the space between thoughts, silence, pure being, pure awareness.

And what are the qualities we notice when we rest our attention in pure awareness? It’s peaceful, endless, forms like thoughts and emotions arise in it but the space itself is empty of forms. It’s deeply accepting because awareness doesn’t resist, avoid, or ignore anything that appears in it. It effortlessly welcomes everything.

So, from the perspective of awareness, who are you?

  • Something in you just knows that you’re so much more than the limited description your thoughts tell you that you are.
  • And you know you’re not your thoughts because we’ve seen that they come and go. You remain here as sustained presence.

As you continue this investigation, the insight appears that this awareness is, in fact, who you are. It’s empty of forms, but overflowing with the essence of life. The idea of a separate self arises in it—you can think that you’re a separate entity—but as you rest as presence itself, this idea begins to feel fluid and not so real.

To the separate self, the notion that it isn’t actually real can be terrifying, and you might have the scary idea that emptiness is like not existing at all.

But here’s the truth: right now in this very moment, who you are is aware, alive, pulsating with life, and overflowing with unlimited potential. Since everything that arises in form emerges from you, awareness, you see yourself everywhere, with nothing separate from anything else.

Why don’t you know this? You’ve been so distracted by thinking that you haven’t yet directly experienced what’s actually here.

Now, back to your question, with this understanding, is knowing ourselves to be pure consciousness with no separate forms in it unnerving? Or does it inspire an enthusiastic exploration to know this in our own experience?

The separate self fears the truth. You, who you really are, are already limitless, luminous, and transparent. It’s only a matter of consciously realizing it.

6.  You speak often of inquiry, investigation, and contemplation in the book, but you only mention meditation briefly. Why is that?  Do you feel that meditation has a role to play in reconnecting with our true nature?

I do feel that meditation plays a role in knowing our true nature, but as with all of these ideas, practices, and terms familiar in the spiritual world, I aim to be crystal clear about what they actually are. So let’s explore what meditation actually is.

In the end, meditation is pure being. It is receiving the unfolding of each moment without resistance. It is being aware of everything and seeing objects such as thoughts and feelings for what they really are and not making their mind-made content real. It’s not a practice, rather it’s living in absolute alignment with the flow of life.

That said, some people enjoy sitting in meditation or they find it useful. It’s a beautiful practice with many practical benefits, but the practice itself is not an endpoint. If you want to know the possibility of being free of suffering, you need to find out who you really are. As you meditate, bring your attention deeply into pure awareness. Let go of trying to figure anything out and live here in infinite openness no matter what arises. Not knowing anything, let the natural intelligence of life move you.

7.  You said that you’ve spent a lot of time on the couch looking at your own mind and getting in touch with your own body.  How often do you encourage people to practice the forms of inquiry, investigation, and contemplation you suggest in the book?

If you’re on fire to know in your own experience that suffering is optional, then inquiry, investigation, and contemplation become a way of life, a joy, an enthusiastic welcoming of things just as they are. There was a time when these activities were the sole focus of my life, and I stopped probably a thousand times a day to open fully to my present moment experience.

Let conditioned patterns rule, and you’ll misidentify yourself as separate—and you’ll suffer. See them as they begin to gel, and you live in the freedom that is your true nature. If you’re serious about happiness, as the Buddha said, “Practice like your hair is on fire.”

8.  What is the most important message you would like people to take away from your book?

I’ve dedicated the book to the possibility, alive in you in this very moment, of knowing that you are free. It is possible to find your way out of suffering every time in every moment. I know this to be true and would love you to know it, too.

Question:  What do you think?  Is happiness available to us in every moment?  We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.  If you’re reading off-blog, click here to join the conversation.

About Dr. Gail Brenner

Gail Brenner (The End of Self Help)Gail Brenner, Ph.D. is a psychologist who joyfully shares insights about discovering that suffering is optional. She is the author of The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life.*

Her work offers a bridge between psychology and spiritual understanding and brings clear seeing and compassion to everyday human challenges.

You can find Gail on Facebook and at her blog, GailBrenner.com

{Please Note:  I received a free review copy of this book. As you know though, I only recommend books I believe in wholeheartedly. The asterisks (*) indicate affiliate links.}

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

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26 Comments

  1. Hi Sandra,

    It is amazing how you have handled this interview and your questions are as challenging as the answers seem to be.
    At the outset I would like to congratulate your friend, Dr. Gail for the philosophical book she has put before us and I wish her a big success.
    What caught my eye immediately is the thought provoking title, which questions the self-help industry albeit self-help is very much a reality. We need it at various stages of life and self-help books do provide solace for a while.

    ‘It’s amazing to discover that suffering is truly optional.’…Really? I don’t think so. It comes uninvited, sneaks through the crevices of your mind and heart and overpowers you unawares. Even Buddha thought it is unavoidable, it has to be accepted as an essential part of life. No life is complete without suffering and I think it ennobles us, it acquaints us with our thoughts and emotions, it helps in ever evolving reflections that define us.

    That brings me to another statement, which is quite provocative – ‘stressful impact of thinking and choose to not engage with it or hear thinking’…My question is how CAN you not engage in thinking, which is a natural process, which flows like a stream. Yes it is stressful to think certain thoughts but we can only deal with them and push them to the background when we give them some space in our mind.

    Sandra, I feel that you have many profound thoughts to share with us, after having read this book. I look forward to more from your own thoughtful mind, which can expostulate the philosophical thoughts of this book. Thanks for a wonderful post!

    • Hi Balroop,

      Thank you so much for your good wishes regarding my book. I see that you addressed your comment to Sandra, but may I take the liberty of responding to some of your points? And I’d like to do so by sharing more about my own experience.

      I hear your insightful comments about suffering – that it enriches our lives and acquaints us with our thoughts and feelings, and I completely agree. It is a necessary part of the human life – until we know that we can find our way through it to peace. This is what I know in my own experience. At this point, I realize the possibility of suffering, for example when a difficult feeling or thought pattern arises. And, to the degree that I’m aware of this potential suffering, I have the choice to follow that feeling or thought pattern – or not. I have experimented with this for years in all sorts of contexts, and this is what I’ve discovered. The potential for suffering does arise, but there is always the potential, in any moment, to be free of it as well.

      Yes, the Buddha says that this human life involves suffering (the first Noble Truth), but he also speaks to the third Noble Truth – that it is possible for suffering to cease – and this is what the book explains in language appropriate to our modern times and psychology. In fact, reading about this third Noble Truth is what inspired my search many years ago. I didn’t understand how it was possible to not suffer, but something in me just knew it was true.

      This relates to your second point about choosing not to engage with stressful thinking. Again, here are the results of my experiments. There are thoughts arising, and there is the awareness of these thoughts. When my attention rests in the awareness only and doesn’t feed *the content* of the thoughts, peace sustains and the thoughts lose their oomph. I see the stressful stories start to grab my attention, and inside I say, “Thank you, but I’m not going there.” This is the source of much happiness for me when my attention isn’t distracted by these stories, and pure presence deeply illuminates my entire experience. And this is what’s possible for all of us.

      I agree that self-help can provide solace for a while, but I have always been interested in lasting solutions, not temporary fixes. When we can see through the belief that we’re not a limited, broken self who needs help (another stressful thought), we are then in the position to realize the essence of our true nature, available now and in every moment, that is merely overlooked when our attention is caught by the mind.

      Much love to you,
      Gail

    • Hello Balroop,

      You’ve raised several important points. I feel Gail has responded so fully so I hope your concerns have been addressed or that you might consider giving these ideas the benefit of the doubt and let them stew for awhile.

      As Gail pointed out, the Buddha did proclaim there is suffering and he also said there’s the cessation (end) of suffering as well as the path to the cessation once we know the causes of suffering.

      I also agree with you that when suffering does arise, we can examine it and use it to lift ourselves out of suffering and to become a better person. This isn’t necessarily easy. It takes dedication and perseverance. And, it’s not that far off from what Gail proposes in her book. Gail says she’s spent thousands of hours sitting on the couch working with her own mind. But, as Gail also says in the book, that degree of dedication becomes joyful dilligence because we see the positive outcome that it brings.

      The Buddha taught many different methods. You could say this is one of the highest and quickest methods, working directly with mind and always returning to pure awareness. It’s not necessarily the right approach for everyone. There are other approaches that might be more suitable for our own temprament like loving kindness practice for example. We each need to find the way that’s best suited for us.

      You’re absolutely right too that the goal isn’t to suppress thinking. Thoughts will arise, but the question is whether we engage with them. To not engage with them again takes dedicated practice and that doesn’t mean we suppress them either.

      I hope this helps a tiny bit! Thanks for sharing your doubts with such openness.

  2. Great interview Sandra…sounds like another wonderful book to be added to my reading list.

    And I say yes to happiness always being available to us.

    The heart of who we are is the divine within, the ‘I Am’ presence if you like. An unconditioned awareness of being.

    We, each of us can say ‘I am’ before we condition it with what or who we think we are, or who we’ve been told we are. We simply know we are.

    And in that sacred space lives only love, joy, happiness, always there, always available, and always us.

    Love Elle

    • I love how you’ve put words to the “I am” experience, Elle. We commonly think or say “I am…something.” But if we take away what follows – the description or definition – there is just “I am, ” pure presence, unlimited, unconditioned. So beautiful to meet you here…

      Love
      Gail

    • Beautifully said, Elle. I especially resonate with this phrase: “An unconditioned awareness of being. ” I’m glad you enjoyed my interview with Gail. Be well!

      • jim

        So then there is the fourth noble truth. It is the 8 fold path. Right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelyhood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. I think that effort produces answers. The whole teaching of Buddha is an algorythm.

        • I’m glad you mentioned the fourth Noble Truth, too, Jim. It’s the way out of suffering. And my experience is that effort for happiness yields happiness, when that effort is directed toward understanding how we suffer. When we see how we give reality to distorted thoughts and feelings, another possibility opens up.

        • Hi Jim,

          Yes, there are certainly many numbered lists in Buddhism. I agree with you that effort is an important part of the equation. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  3. ‘It’s a moment of grace when we make a U-turn with our attention and turn toward our in-the-moment experience to be curious about it, rather than waiting for something we think we don’t have.’

    These words resonate deeply with me…once I had this revelation and made that U-turn, I was on the path to healing myself and working through things….and it is why I started my new blog. I am intrigued and will put this book on my reading list.

    • Hi Donna,

      I love that you’ve benefited from the “U-turn with your attention” towards your in-the-moment experience. It was a turning point for me also in my journey.

      Best of luck with your blog that shares this beautiful message…

    • Dear Donna,

      It’s interesting to see what a pivotal point this has been for both you and Gail. As long as we’re embroiled in all the projections of mind – the thoughts and emotions – it will be difficult to find happiness or peace.

      I’m glad you’re on the path to healing and working through things and sharing so much valuable insight on your blog.

  4. Hi Gail and Sandra. What an amazing interview! All the way through it, I kept thinking about the way I teach drawing to non-artists using exercises from the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” by Betty Edwards. When the students do exercises that the left brain cannot do, they go into a state (ideally) of pure awareness in which the have no attachment to how the drawing looks or why they are drawing, they are just enjoying the process of exploring lines and angles with their eyes and pencils. And they lose all awareness of the passing of time! I don’t watch them draw because that brings up self-consciousness that I am trying to help them back away from for the time that they are “meditating with a pencil,” which is what I almost named the class. I tell them that the left brain will be checking in to see if they still exist, since they are in a wordless state and I am sure that it feels to the poor old over-worked, over-protective, very wordy left brain that I have killed them for sure! 🙂 I tell them that they might feel bored (left brain has nothing to do because it can tell them all about what a chair looks like but they cannot really get VISUAL information from the left brain—–and they are observing with pure awareness and enjoyment and do not NEED any verbal information from the left brain. I tell them that they might feel annoyed with me or angry, but that it is only the left brain’s anger at being ignored and bored, so I will hold it against THEM, Anyway, that is what kept going though my mind when I was reading this excellent interview. I think your book must be fascinating, Gail, and it also might upset a few left brains along the way, 🙂

    • I didn’t think of it that way until I read your comment, Jean, but maybe part of the purpose of my book is to upset as many left brains as possible! Or at least invite them to question their usefulness when it comes to happiness.

      Your description of your class reminds me of what happened to Jill Bolte Taylor, author of “Stroke of Insight,” who experienced a stroke that I think disabled her left brain for a while. And she experienced effortless joy and happiness.

      May we all meditate with a pencil – or with whatever we find ourselves doing in any moment.

    • That’s fascinating, Jean! I’m not surprised that people get bored, restless, or even angry sometimes. I believe that the innermost subtle awareness goes beyond the brain, left or right. Otherwise, this awareness would die when the brain and body died. But perhaps play in the field of the left brain can brings us closer to non-conceptual awareness. I for one would love that. Thanks for the idea.

  5. Oops, I meant to say that I will NOT hold it against the students if they feel anger toward me! 🙂

  6. Sandra you can not imagine how delighted I was to find your interview with Gail, in my inbox this morning. I am half way through Gail’s book, having purchased a few days ago and have been enjoying Gail’s blog for just a few short months now.

    Gail your message speaks a truth to me, that leaves me with a sense of wholeness that is so hard to put into words. I have memories from childhood up until now, of experiencing a deep unchanging sense of joy, that I couldn’t explain to anyone else.

    Your book has re-ignited the “fire” to see the truth of this revealed in my own life. It has also brought up much inquiry around my own coaching work. I am so curious to see what unfolds, as I become more aware of all the physical sensations and thoughts of my experience in each moment and find the courage to be with them.

    Thank you Sandra and Gail for being in my inbox this morning.

    • Tears come to my eyes as I read your comment, Liz. I’m so happy for you that the fire is now alive in you to discover how this sense of unchanging joy might burn brightly in your life. Such a lovely, exciting time for you, and I’m glad you found support through my book.

    • It feels like we have some sense of synchronicity occurring between us, Liz! I’m so delighted you found Gail’s book and that it speaks to you so clearly. May your fire to see, feel, and be the truth grow brighter and brighter. It will be interesting to see how you bring this together with your coaching practice, should you decide that’s the right thing to do. All my love to you.

  7. Hello Sandra and Gail!

    First – the book is right up my alley…and I’m ordering it today. As I was reading through the interview, I kept thinking to myself, “this is what yoga nidra is all about.” It’s about cutting through the mind stuff and the dualism that give us the illusion that we are separate, which prolongs the agony of suffering. Once you are aware, suffering truly is optional.

    Much love,
    Peggy

    • Thanks so much for these beautiful words, Peggy. Yes, there’s no difference between what I write about and Yoga Nidra. I hope you enjoy the book!

    • How interesting, Peggy. I’m not familiar with Yoga Nidra but from the little I’ve read about, I’m surprised Gail says it’s the same as what she is writing about in her book. But I see the aim is similar as it is to my spiritual practice: “It’s about cutting through the mind stuff and the dualism that give us the illusion that we are separate, which prolongs the agony of suffering.” I love that we are all in sync that way!

  8. What a wonderful and inspiring interview. I will definitely be reading the book. A few months ago, during my daily meditation I had a very moving experience. A thought/voice came through very clearly and it said, “All is well”. While this isn’t a ground breaking statement, the sense of peace, serenity and truth that came through to me was expansive & life changing. I am now “seeing” the world and the energy that swirls around each human being in a way that is brand new and quite spiritual.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Alison, and for your interest in my book. “All is well” might sound simple, but it’s so profound. It sounds like your experience of living “all is well” is what all of us are looking for. When things unfold from this “all is well” space, there’s no drama and no fight – only peace. May it continue….

  9. I wrote down several parts of this interview as single phrases of wisdom to contemplate….or better yet to get me out of thinking, and to share with others. Here is the one I “think” (ha ha) resonates with me personally, and what I see in my clients, and I dare to say so many others. “Let conditioned patterns rule, and you’ll misidentify yourself as separate”. The “separateness” will take further understanding for most….and infact is a lifelong practice. Most people don’t get the idea of no-self or emptiness without studying the sutras with someone who can bring the teachings into our daily life. I appreciate you both for doing a little of that for us here. I am going to read your book….or wait for the audio version…hint, hint! But first I am going on a week long silent retreat engaging in the Dharma, Qigong, and Yoga in the sierra foothills of northern California. I am glad I read this before going to get me ready to do a lot of “no thinking”. Thanks again Sandra for bringing forward into the light what seems to be such a mystery to us all from time to time. And thank you Gail for your wonderful reminders of how to get out of the way of my own happiness. Oh, and I have to give a big purple thumbs up (because I love purple and it is passionate) to the confirmation of…there is nothing to fix!

    • Hi Laura,

      I love that you’re called Life Energy Coach—your life energy clearly comes through your words!

      This realization of nonseparation or no-self might be one that we need to study to get. But many of us also deeply and intuitively know it, maybe just for a moment or two. So hearing about it, in my book for example, possibly can tap into what we already know at some level.

      And I don’t think of this as an all-or-nothing understanding—that we either get it or we don’t. Maybe we can begin shedding identities that don’t work and experiment with showing up in our lives is a different, less conditioned way. This is definitely on the path to at least questioning who we really are and beginning to live the truth.

      I appreciate your excitement for these intriguing truths about happiness. Wishing you a marvelous, fruitful retreat!

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