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Welcome to my island of sanity and serenity. I'm Sandra Pawula - writer, mindfulness teacher and advocate of ease. I help deep thinking, heart-centered people find greater ease — emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Curious? Read On!

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,

{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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