The Struggle of Self-Improvement


For many of us the spiritual path is about self-improvement.  It’s about fixing those flaws in order to reach a state of perfection.  We know enough about life to know that much of our thought and behavior is unhealthy and that it causes so much of our unhappiness, and so we understand that these aspects of ourselves need changing.  We can take for example the basic tenets of the Buddha’s teachings.  We can understand that desire is the root of suffering, and that the way to become free from suffering is to become free from desire.  This idea is expressed with such simplicity, and yet it seems so difficult to achieve.  We can accept this idea intellectually while never actually achieving it.

So for many of us, the aim is to become free from desire.  But think about this for a moment.  Why do you want to become free of desire?  Isn’t the need to become free from desire also a desire?  So we become trapped in this loop.  We desire to be free of desire.  The very thing which we want to become free of is the very thing that is driving us.  So how do we get out of this trap?

We have to ask ourselves why we want to change?  Why do we try?  As soon as we make an effort to change this creates a conflict within us between who we are in the moment and who we desire to become in the future.  This creates struggle, and struggle becomes overwhelming and exhausting.  We can often wind up feeling defeated.  We’re trying to be something other than what we currently are, which means we are resisting ourselves.  There is no acceptance in that.  Instead there is self-rejection, self-loathing.  All of this makes us feel weak, worthless and incapable of change.  No acceptance means there is no love.  There is no compassion for ourselves.  We see failure.  We see fault.  We judge and punish ourselves.  And because of this we tend to feel powerless to change.  We just go on beating ourselves up.  And the patterns continue.  So what is the alternative?

What if we made no effort to change?  What if we completely let go of the desire to improve, to become free of desire?  What if we just accepted our faults and flaws and all of the suffering that comes from craving, and we gave up trying to fix it?  I’m not talking about ignoring our imperfections or ignoring how certain thoughts and feelings affect us.   I’m not saying that if we have unhealthy patterns we should just indulge without any discernment.  But what if we decided to examine all of it, to look deeply into it, not with any intention to change it, but simply to understand it.

When I was a child I liked to take apart my toys.  I was very curious to see how they worked.  I wanted to explore all the functions of the mechanism.  So I would take my toys apart and look inside.  I would take out the parts and examine them piece by piece.  I would look at how this motor turns this gear and that gear turns another, and then I would understand the motion behind the wheels.  I had no interest in building toys.  I had no interest in improving the toys I had.   It was pure curiosity.  I just wanted to know how the mechanisms function.

So what I’m suggesting is what if we have that same kind of curiosity about ourselves, about our own internal psychological mechanisms?  What if we just open ourselves up and look inside just to see how it all works; just to understand it?  I’m not saying we should look in order to fix or improve, but just to know how it all functions, how this emotion is triggered, what beliefs are behind it, that sort of thing.  Just be very curious, like a child.  No judgment.  No effort.  Just exploring, learning, understanding.

What I’ve observed in my own life is that when I bring this kind of non-judgmental curiosity to my thinking, to my emotions, to my beliefs, I’m able to just observe the process.  I’m able to see not only how I react in a certain situation, but all of the mechanisms behind that reaction.  I’m able to see how certain feelings and behaviors are motivated by subconscious beliefs and desires.  And when I’m engaged in thought or activity which is unhealthy, if I am able to bring awareness to it, to be fully aware of all the mechanisms behind it and how I am creating my own suffering, I don’t have to make any effort to change it.  Just by seeing how it works I’m able to say, “I see how this is very unnecessary.”  Rather than having to force anything to change, I simply lose interest in engaging in that way of thinking or behaving.  It’s simply a loss of interest.  There is absolutely no effort in that.  In fact, it’s the very opposite of effort.

“What you resist, persists.” –Carl Jung

When we’re trying to change something in ourselves, we’re resisting it.  We are fighting with ourselves.  We have made ourselves the enemy.  What I’m suggesting is simply bringing awareness into it, and nothing more.  No struggle.  No conflict.  Just observing.  Examining.   And this requires acceptance.  This requires compassion.

We are learning to love ourselves just as we are, despite all of the imperfections.  We can be very hard on ourselves for having flaws, but this is ridiculous.  No one is perfect.  So why do we put such an impossible expectation upon ourselves?  We have imperfections.  We make mistakes.  We fall short.  We get caught up in unhealthy patterns and habits.  But accept all of this with compassion and forgiveness.  Forgiveness just means there’s no condemnation.  Approach all of this with love and acceptance, and just be curious to know how it functions.

If I’m behaving in a way that I know is not healthy or is causing me to suffer, by condemning myself I bring about more suffering on top of the suffering I was already suffering.  So how does that help me?  Instead, I can just look at it.  I can see how it’s causing me to suffer, without being hard on myself, without making an effort to change it, without creating more suffering.  Just looking.  Just examining and seeing all the functions of the mechanism from start to finish.  Going to the root of my feelings, my beliefs.  Seeing how they arise and how they express themselves, and what are the results?  Simply by understanding the processes I can see how unnecessary something is.  I can see what is actually happening, rather than the illusions I have about it, without making a judgment about it.   And I can have more awareness whenever certain behavior or desire arises again and again.  I can have more clarity in regard to how these functions play out, and I can engage or not engage.  If I see how something is not serving my highest good and is actually causing me to suffer I can simply not engage it.  And this is not about resisting it.  It’s about simply being disinterested.  That’s the difference.  Because effort requires a struggle.  Disinterest does not.   Disinterest just means I don’t feel the impulse to resist or engage.  Because engaging also requires effort.  But is that effort worth anything?  Is it necessary?

So this is all I’m talking about; just bringing awareness into everything.  Just observing and understanding.  Then change will occur naturally on its own, without any effort, without struggle, without resistance.

One thought on “The Struggle of Self-Improvement

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