Ending the Self-Improvement Project

We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves--the heavy-duty fearing that we're bad and hoping that we're good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy, and the addictions of all kinds--never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.

--Pema Chödrön

For a very long time, I did not get the idea of ending the self-improvement project. I now see this blockage to understanding in the very words I just wrote. I was trying to work with an idea. In my head. I did not know how to experience a sense of sufficiency in my body and with my heart. Here lies a major stumbling block for us problem-solving/doer types who love the land of insight and abstraction. We think we can think our way into "being fully awake," and the joy of learning new concepts can trick us into believing we understand words like "touching our basic wealth" even though we haven't felt them below the neck.

Credit to The Frumious Bandersnatch

If I am really honest, I still spend many moments caught in the self-improvement cycle, otherwise known as the it's-never-*$#%@-enough syndrome. This deficiency-focused framework is such a deep habit that I can easily glide into it without awareness. Many aspects of the surrounding culture, with their continuous spinning of messages that we are indeed lacking some key ingredients, help to keep the scarcity trance intact. When in the thick of it, I do things like buy books that promise wholeness or obsessively critique my sessions with clients. I often manage to do two seemingly contradictory things at once: grasp for that some-day-I'll-be-good-enough feeling and bolster the inner critic who relishes saying things like, "Way to mess that up, Idiot." They both serve to strengthen my sense of inadequacy.

I've found that a useful way to interrupt my climb up the eternal ladder of inadequacy is to distinguish the desire to fill holes from the yearning to touch what matters most. The former sounds like this:

"I need to be different--and by "different" I mean better--than I currently am."

"I should be doing more," or, said in reverse , "I'm not doing enough."

"Why can't I figure this out!?!?"

"Get it together!" shouted to self.

In other words, the scarcity model centers on passing judgment, shaming, and blaming. In contrast, "mindful prayer," to borrow from Tara Brach, goes something like this:

"May whatever circumstances arise in my life--the great difficulties, the good fortune and joy--serve to awaken my heart and mind."

When I can remember to long for what really matters, which in my book amounts to a sense of belonging and connection, the urgency to do better, feel better, and be better eases up.  I can relax and come back into the present moment, where I have the capacity to turn my full attention (not just the intellectual kind) to that which nourishes rather than depletes me. To paraphrase Eduardo Duran, the focus shifts from curing something to bringing back harmony, where healing can happen.

In her poem "School Prayer," Diane Ackerman manages to capture in words this remembering of the "warmth and brilliance" that are our birthright:

In the name of daybreak

And the eyelids of morning

And the wayfaring moon

And the night when it departs,


I swear I will not dishonor

My soul with hatred,

But offer myself humbly

As a guardian of nature,

As a healer of misery,

As a messenger of wonder,

As an architect of peace.


In the name of the sun and its mirrors...

And the uttermost night...

And the crowning seasons

Of the firefly and the apple,


I will honor all life

--wherever and in whatever form

It may dwell--on Earth my home,

and in the mansions of the stars.