Self improvement has the sweaty aroma of the gym about it. It’s all about instruction and repetition – from guided meditations for spirituality to writing workshops for aspiring authors, the idea is to understand what needs to be done and do it again and again. That’s perfectly true, of course – if you want to be more literate, read more. You want to become an excellent programmer? Take some classes to start, then hone your craft with some real projects. The more you practice whatever it is, the better you get at it.
Recovery programs for addiction are incredibly helpful for some things once you get to a certain depth under the water. I’m not talking about those when I say that most of the industry (which is just about people wanting to be better in all sorts of ways) has a deep problem.
The problem is that most self improvement is about contrived goals that come purely out of ambition. It’s all about decisions to improve in one area versus another. We form these ideas of who we want to be or what we want to do, then we undertake self improvement in that area. That’s a problem because the ideas of who we want to be largely come from our egos – when we choose what to work on from the level of our psyche, we are ultimately defeated if we adopt roles and inauthenticity. When we come at our lives from a context of struggle and fear we work on one thing, find it insufficient, and move to the next. We don’t know what we need to work on from the level of ego.
Self improvement should be about the cultivation of happiness, not getting more friends or becoming wealthier. As a community, we should be talking about things like improving our happiness baselines and the limits of self improvement. Productivity, motivation, and minding the metrics towards success are well and good in a journey from one spot to another, but when our destinations are inauthentic our travel doesn’t serve us. It’s wonderful to watch the scale go down in my efforts to lose weight and it always leaves me smiling when a ton of people come to read one post or another, but my goals to become a healthier person and a more successful writer don’t really come out of the summons of my life. They come out of my ego, so necessarily they aren’t focused around the things I really need to improve on.
The Struggle of Life
In truth, there is generally very little struggle in modern life. In the absence of real conflict and danger, we simply invent the struggle. We create most problems at the levels of our egos and when we minimize our egos we minimize the struggle. There’s real problems ranging from a snake in the bush to the consumer culture, but those aren’t nearly as common or prevalent in our minds.
It feels like we’re constantly defending our territory and climbing uphill when the focus of our consciousness is at the level of the temporal. That’s just the ego too, though – when life (or the universe, or God) gives us alternative challenges to ones we think we should work on, we become frustrated.
When you have fear, insecurity, or weakness inside of you, and you attempt to keep it from being stimulated, there will inevitably be events and changes in life that challenge your efforts. Because you resist the changes, you feel that you are struggling with life.
Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
What we’re talking about here is all those people we find irritating, all that frustration we have in our slow progress, and all those circumstances in life that we wish we could escape from but, for whatever reason, truly can’t. That’s a tricky subject, that last one, because we almost always can – but not always quickly. When it’s a slow working toward release, impatience threatens to undermine our motivations to see the change through.
When we drop out of the context of our egos a little bit, though, we can let go of our inauthentic pain and see that we’re being called to work on parts of ourselves that we’d prefer to just ignore. Things that bring up fear and anger within us, that we’ve buried deep within and that keep us from happiness. Those things are the calls to self improvement from life itself. Those calls are vastly more valuable than the things we want to work on from the framework of the ego, because they point to the buried parts of us the ego would rather keep protected.
We all have fears and phobias coming out of things in our past that we wish hadn’t happened. We have dark sides and random, evil thoughts floating through our heads (well, at least I hope that’s not just me). The common self-improvement enthusiast just ignores all of that and instead focuses on the greener-looking grass on the other side. That’s doomed to failure because all of those little shadows and demons represent blocked energy that keep us from wholly giving ourselves in life. They prevent us from being spiritual too, making us half-men that wander the world handsomely fashionable with tortured insides.
Adversity is the diamond dust Heaven polishes its jewels with.
It’s easy to pretend that if we move close enough to our ideals, all the shadows will vanish in the growing light of our awesomeness. That’s never true and we know it deep down, though. We can’t move on until we address the things we would rather not admit to ourselves. Nothing we choose to ignore is vanquished by lack of acknowledgement.
The cleansing action of life comes from outside of the tiny perspective of our individual minds. And it’s persistent – it happens again and again until we listen to it and allow that part of us to be cleansed. Some say there’s no escape from it even after life, that we’ll just circle back in through reincarnation to face those parts of us we didn’t allow into the light.
The Lessons of Life
The struggles, tensions, and problems of life that come to us unbidden – that we do not create to distract ourselves from our real summons of life or out of some self improvement zeal to be a different person – are in fact lessons. That implies a teacher, certainly, but it’s irrelevant for this particular discussion who that teacher might be. Pick whatever you’re comfortable with: your subconscious, God, or the random chaos of a scientific universe. Doesn’t matter – it’s the action of those lessons that’s important. They’re purifications.
Life creates situations that push you to your edges, all with the effect of removing what is blocked inside of you. That which is blocked and buried within you forms the roots of fear.
Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul (linked above)
Life lessons are circular in the sense that, when we refuse to accept something that life brings us, whatever it is becomes a buried and shadow part of ourselves. Called blocked energy by some and mental trauma by others, it doesn’t matter in the ultimate sense if we’re talking about energy flow through chakras or mental health. All that matters is that we retain it, and then things that are similar to it stimulate that buried material and brings that same pattern of evasive thoughts and negative emotions back up. So, when a life lesson comes to us that stirs up fear or anxiety, it’s because we didn’t allow some earlier life lesson to flow through us in acceptance. If we resist it again, that buried part – that blocked energy – increases in severity. The next time it’s stimulated, it’s all the more dramatic – on and on, until we finally allow it passage through our hearts.
God’s darkest threatenings are always accompanied with a revelation of the way of escape. The ark is always along with the flood. Zoar is pointed out when God foretells Sodom’s ruin. The brazen serpent is ever reared where the venomous snakes bite and burn.
That may seem bleak on the surface but it’s actually a blessing. That means, no matter how bad it gets, there’s a way out. It means that we’re never truly in a hopeless situation. Sometimes we can’t undo a circumstance, an injury, or a deed – but there’s always a way forward. No matter how dark it gets and how deep we go, the upward-looking will still see the faintest glimmer of light above that may lead back to the surface world. The sparkle of positivity and positive thinking is the shimmering of hope, and the belief in ever-present hope is a part of faith too.
The Acceptance of Life
The hope that is always present in life lessons, in all struggles, isn’t advancement in the sensibilities of most self improvement paradigms. It’s advancement of a different sort: spiritual advancement, or if you prefer the growth of wisdom. Depending on whether you value the aspirations of your ego or the enjoyment of your life more, that might not sound like an attractive alternative. It doesn’t matter, though, because there’s no two ways about it. Life insists on being the ultimate self improvement guide and will only give us the lessons that we need to unblock parts of ourselves, not those that we need to become the rock star or famous actor we might prefer. The Western concept of accomplishment has nothing to do with what we’re supposed to be working on at this level.
You only have to be willing to open your heart in the face of anything and everything, and permit the purification process to take place… You simply permit the pain to come up into your heart and pass through.
Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul (linked above)
The hope that is always present in life lessons and in all struggles is that we might be able to resolve whatever is holding us back. When we finally let it into our hearts and fully feel it, we’ll be able to watch it go. The ever-present hope is for acceptance, which is a willingness to observe ourselves, our thoughts and emotions and instinctive reactions, fully by persisting in mindfulness throughout the life lesson. This spiritual witnessing reveals that all of the responses of the body, emotions, and mind are ultimately separate from those parts of us which observe the unfolding of life- our souls.
It’s beautiful and wonderful to watch the birds flit about, the bees busily float from flower to flower, and to play with our children in the sandboxes. It really is. But remaining present, being mindful, during the hard times – that’s when it counts. That’s why we’re paying attention – this is why we practice. So that we may learn that which life teaches, which is always about the things we struggle hardest to hide.
When we heed the lessons of life, we can expose the hidden things in ourselves to the light of awareness. In that experiencing, they get melted down and we can walk this world more freely and with more joy. We are taught, in our increasing vulnerability and compassion, to step aside from the fictional narratives of society and find ease, acceptance, and tranquility in our everyday lives. That’s the cultivation of happiness and infinitely superior to whatever planned course you might sign up for at your local community college. The ultimate self improvement guide is life itself, completely personalized to your unique journey.
You may also enjoy:
- The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself – book on Amazon quoted above. An excellent read, highly recommended.
- A Buddhist Letter of Compassion amid Tragedy – programminglife.net
- Tranquility Affirmation – programminglife.net
- At One with Your Circumstances – inspiremetoday.com
- Taking a Chance on Happiness and Knowing We Deserve It – tinybuddha.com
- The Reality of This Moment – zenhabits.net
- Teaching Your Children There Are No “Bad” Emotions – beliefnet.com
- The Dark Side of Perfectionism – dumblittleman.com
- How To Find Peaceful Thoughts In An Instant – mindbodygreen.com
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