Ah, the self-improvement movement. The attempt at fixing oneself. The self-help books, cds, workshops, therapists’ offices, etc. might do well to have a label or a sign that warns of the self-judgement and self-deprecation that may (and probably will) ensue when you stumble along in your humanity.
Those who try to work on “improving” themselves often end up being their own worst critics.
As you strive toward enlightenment, there are times when spiritual thoughts and zen behaviours go right out the window. You worry. You feel alone. You judge. You gossip. You interfere. You grasp. You close your heart. You protect your sense of self. You resist what is. You believe your negative thoughts. You lose faith. You take something way too damn seriously. You are so not in the present moment.
And then with a heavy sigh, you think to yourself, “With everything I have read and learned (and all the inspirational quotes I have “liked” and “shared” on Facebook) I should know better by now!” And then comes the story in your mind telling you that you’re going backwards. “I’m such a failure. I should know better by now. Where did I go wrong?”
Maybe you’ve had this kind of moment when you’re meditating. You catch yourself making a grocery list or rehearsing a future conversation you’re going to have with someone rather than focusing on the inhales and exhales of your breath. “Damn it! I did it again! I suck at meditating! Bad meditator! Bad meditator!”
When you slip into self-unawareness and abandon your spiritual outlook, it can leave you wondering how it could happen, what you have missed, or what you have yet to learn to get out of this space. The desire to be a “better” human being can eclipse self-acceptance.
The warning label or sign to which I was referring to earlier on comes with great irony. Caution: Self-improvement can make you completely neurotic.
To avoid the “heady-ness” that can arise when wanting to “improve” thy self, remember two important things:
1. The goal is not perfection.
Placing an expectation on yourself that you’re eventually going to be a beacon of peace, love, and compassion all day and every day and give the Dalai Lama a run for his money is just plain unrealistic. Even after many years on the self-improvement train, you are going to go off the tracks. Inevitably you’ll think or do stuff that is far from enlightened, mindful, or spiritual. You’ll get jealous. You’ll take something personally. You’ll whisper under your breath, “What a bitch.”
Save yourself the disappointment (and likely judgement) and commit to “catching yourself in the act” of slipping into undesired mindsets and behaviours as much as possible and then as Marianne Williamson suggests, “return to love.”
In my mediation class, the teacher urged us to be extremely gentle on ourselves because striving to focus on our breath one hundred per cent of the time was well, not the goal. The goal was to notice when thoughts would carry our attention away from the breath. My teacher would say, “When you start thinking, simply take that as a signal to let go of those thoughts, and begin again.”
When you fall from grace, don’t beat yourself up – simply make the change – begin again. And please do revel in the fact that you noticed it in the first place because honey, many don’t have a clue. Oh dear, did that sound judgemental? (Ahem)
2. The goal of being a “better person” is a fallout of the self-help movement.
Self-improvement suggests there’s something wrong with you, so you’re already starting off with a disadvantage.
I once spoke at a conference and its slogan was, “A Better Me, A Better You” and I was disheartened by the message that was being sent to the people in attendance which basically was, “We aren’t good enough – we need to be better than we are now”.
You may want to feel better, but you don’t need to be better.
Anything that suggests that you have fallen short of standards is just an idea – something created like everything else surrounding you as you read this. You may want to make changes in your life to feel better and enjoy your life more, but there is no way you can be better. And to add to the irony pertaining to self-improvement, the best way to feel better, is to realize that you are perfect just the way you are. You don’t need to improve and your spirit will lift each time you tune into that truth.
Rather than trying to be a better you, how about remembering that in your imperfections, you are perfect? You are perfectly struggling, falling short, and falling down.
Self-improvement is often referred to as “personal growth”. Keep in mind that your “personal growth” process is done. It has always been done. It was done the day that you arrived. There you were drooling away in your diapers with pure stillness in your mind and accepting of everyone and everything. There you were being bounced on someone’s knee all the while a grand master of peacefulness, laughter, playfulness, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Hmmmmm…sounds a whole lot like the kinds of things we yearn for when we pick up that self-help book, attend that yoga class, join that drum circle, attend that workshop, or walk on those burning coals. We are simply trying to be like we once knew how to be. By understanding that we had this happiness and peace thing nailed right off the bat, we can recognize it is really just a matter of returning to a state that we once embodied.
Truth: You are here to remember your loveliness.
Rather than self-improvement, I recommend self-actualization. Self-actualization is a process of letting go of the thought patterns and beliefs that suggest that you aren’t good enough just the way you are so you can remember your loveliness. I am all in favour of evolution – here’s to making changes within yourself to once again have stillness in your mind and connect back to that joyful true nature of yours.
Ditch self-improvement and change the intention to match the real mission you’re on…
You show up at your therapist’s office to remember your loveliness.
You go on that retreat to remember your loveliness.
You meditate to remember your loveliness.
You pray, chant, dance, play, breathe, unplug, run, stretch, get enough sleep, and anything else one would qualify as self-improvement to remember who you really are – simply lovely…just the way you are.