Embracing What Is Changes Everything
There's no place to go and nothing to become
The Oppression of Self Improvement
Shame and the self-hatred that comes with it are pervasive in our culture, the sense that we are somehow flawed, defective, and always in need of improvement.
Our society is obsessed with self-improvement, the relentless impulse to make ourselves into a better version of ourselves. We wear self-improvement like a badge of honor, a declaration of who we are. Amending all our weaknesses and fixing all our flaws would satisfy and fulfill us once and for all.
We compare ourselves to others and need to be better than them.
At the same time, we wish we could more like others and less like ourselves. We feel constant pressure to eat the right foods, say the right things, get into the right schools, work for the right companies, make more money, be happier, and smile more, all while looking good and never aging.
Stories of exceptional people doing extraordinary things are paraded through the media daily. We read about eleven-year-olds who start global movements, ninety-seven-year-old Nobel laureates, college dropouts who become billionaires by the time they’re thirty, and vegan-triathlete-executives whose kids all go to Harvard. Superhuman feats like these become the standard against which we measure our lives—failing to live up to these ideals fuels desperate feelings of never being enough.
Somehow, through it all, we think everyone else has everything figured out except us. We grin on the outside with grim determination on the inside.
“Absence of self-acceptance has brought me the darkest pain I have ever experienced” -– Elizabeth Gilbert
Of course, inspiring stories are beautiful. They stimulate our thinking, inform our dreams, and motivate us to explore what’s possible. And there’s nothing wrong with looking after our lives and wellbeing. This is all part of the natural flow of life. But such ideals can quickly become oppressive, exacerbating our personalities' more judgmental and self-critical aspects.
A Cyclical Trap
In ancient times, we had to atone for our sins. Today, we have to compensate for all of our shortcomings.
If you’re overweight, it’s because you’re indulgent. If you have no money, it’s because you spend too much. If you don’t exercise, it’s because you’re lazy. If you’re not having mind-blowing sex, it’s because you’re boring. If you get cancer, it’s because you ate too many processed foods. If your hair isn’t shiny, it’s because you’re using the wrong shampoo.
And so we embark on the great self-improvement project.
We read self-help books, go to the gym, and attend seminars. We listen to podcasts, train for a marathon, and sharpen our hand-shaking skills while learning to use people’s names and look them in the eye. We do intermittent fasting, learn how to dress for success, be more productive, and build better habits. We read one how-to article after another and think, “That’s another thing I’m not doing. I should be doing that too.” Little do we know, the people doing the preaching are too busy to practice (gulp).
When we fail to live up to our expectations, as we inevitably will, we get frustrated. That’s because no amount of intensives, life coaches, or online courses can fix that which is not broken.
These same ideals can get carried into our spiritual practices if we're not careful.
In Western culture, it’s typical for self-hatred and unworthiness to arise while doing spiritual practice, and to turn that practice against ourselves, to judge ourselves as inadequate. Spiritual practice can become a self-improvement project or, worse, a grim duty. Meditation can become something we think we should do, like taking vitamins. So we practice yoga, go to therapy, and do spiritual workshops to make ourselves a better person. “I’m not doing it right. I’m not enlightened enough.” Years ago, when the Dalai Lama was asked about this, he didn’t understand—self-hatred doesn’t exist in the Tibetan language. After some consideration, he said, “This is a mistake.”
“The reason you want to be better is the reason why you aren’t, shall I put it like that?” — Alan Watts
What a relief to finally let all of this go!
Embracing What Is: The Paradox of Change
So, am I suggesting we should throw our hands up, conclude that inner freedom is a fantasy, stuff our faces with junk food, stop moving our bodies and allow hopelessness, addictions, and loneliness to go unchallenged?
Hardly. Living a genuine spiritual life and reconciling ancient wisdom traditions with the ways of our modern world continues to be one of my life's most interesting and compelling aspects. I’ve experienced and witnessed a profound change in myself and others through meditation, spirituality, and psychotherapy. I’ve been able to move through severe bouts of depression and such debilitating patterns of thinking and emotions as self-hatred, self-doubt, loneliness, guilt, and shame. I haven’t transcended these, but my relationship with them has been transformed.
Underlying all of our struggles is the belief that there is a way out of our difficulties, a means for escaping the inevitable pain of existence and permanently transcending the limitations of our humanity.
Paradoxically, the greatest truth I have discovered is this: In every spiritual practice in which I have delved deeply, what has revealed itself is the need to be as I am with all my ignorance, imperfections, and vulnerabilities, and to see that who I am, messiness and all, is already whole and complete.
“On the Vipassana retreats I offer,” says meditation teacher Howie Cohn, “people often find that the effort of becoming starts to dissolve, the seeking mind exhausts itself, and the recognition dawns that they’re already complete just as they are.”
Rather than trying to realize some perfected version of myself or imagined supreme enlightenment, I’ve come to see that true happiness is the ordinariness of being here, now. Thoughts and stories about present experience and the interpretations, judgments, and ideals created by the mind only hinder that peace, joy, and freedom.
Those who take up a spiritual practice like meditation quickly discover that our regular, results-oriented effort to get somewhere—striving, resisting, judging—doesn’t work. Meditation, even if only to calm the mind, begins and ends with being with what is and embracing everything without rejecting anything.
We do not have to improve ourselves. We just have to let go of what blocks our heart.” — Jack Kornfield
Curiosity about the process of change and the total acceptance of what is may seem at odds. However, I now realize that true healing, transformation, and liberation begin with surrendering to this moment and the world as it is. As counterintuitive as it may seem, embracing ourselves as we are and allowing everything to exist is the secret to freedom.
Where to Go From Here
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to challenge ourselves and grow. Children want to learn how to write. Adults want to learn how to stay healthy, build closer relationships, and develop their capacity to quiet the mind and find inner peace. All of these are wonderful. Such skills can be nurtured helpfully and kindly to enrich our lives. Self-improvement, in this way, becomes an expression of our fundamental good nature, not trying to become something we are not, but as an expression of our love and beauty. Or we can go about self-improvement in a striving way, with judgment and self-criticism, thinking, I’m not good enough and have to make myself better and more spiritual, more enlightened. This approach undermines the very essence of freedom.
We’re not trying to get to the end. We’re just loving our lives, moment by moment” —Trudy Goodman
Most of our effort is in how we manufacture struggle. How frequently we want our life to be other than it is. Or the person we’re in a relationship with to be different than they are. Underlying all our struggles is a lack of self-acceptance, an unwillingness to surrender and simply be witness to life. When we sit, we observe how we turn our lives into one self-improvement project after another. This is where the struggle comes, much of it to create a better version of “me.”
We try to rid ourselves of our anger, fear, and desire once and for all. But to continue our effort and not challenge our fixation with self-judgment is to miss fundamental freedom. When we quiet the mind, we see how resistance and longing get us into trouble. There is no place to go and nothing to become. We have to sit with our opposition to feeling whole, to feeling all those painful and messy parts of ourselves.
The paradox of our practice is that the way of transformation is to leave ourselves alone.
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
Instead of trying to suppress or eliminate our perceived flaws, we can learn to embrace and accept them. In doing so, they lose their power over us. Change organically emerges as I become more attentive to what the body needs, so I eat better. Exercise changes from being driven by what I have to do to what the body wants.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” — Carl Rogers
The truth is, every human that has ever been born into this world is perfect as they are. They aren’t broken or flawed or even a sinner. How can it be otherwise? Could a tulip be made more beautiful if it were a different shade of purple? Could a zebra be made more whole if it had more stripes? Could a mountain be made more mountain if it had more boulders?
This is not to say we give in to despair and resignation. Instead, we notice how easily we get drawn into fantasy while missing this very life. We dream of a perfect world—perfect location, house, career, partner, child, spiritual experience, self, society, and present moment—all while missing out on the perfection of life as it is.
“Much of spiritual life is self-acceptance, maybe all of it.” – Jack Kornfield
This life may not always be pleasant or fun, but it is life, the life that is. We still get up and go to work. We still have conflicts, but they begin to relax into a life that is the only life we have in the moment.
And what a gift it can be.
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