On self-improvement

Melissa's art piece

Painting by Melissa Hardiman.

I have binged on self-improvement for many years. I have learned a few things from that experience that I share in this post.

You might think if everything I’ve learned in my life will fit in a single blog post this guy must not know much. If you think that, you are right. I have learned very little, but I think quality makes up for quantity. You can decide for yourself if you choose to read this.

One fundamental point is that we do not have a way to measure our progress in a meaningful way. We tend to accept what we think stands before us and around us at face value as if it has some authority As the Bible says in Corinthians, we see through a glass darkly.

We cannot judge our circumstances because we have no standard to use for comparison. We do not even see clearly what stands before us. It is mostly smoke and mirrors. Our thoughts produce a foggy maze. For more on this please refer to David Bohm’s work, especially Thought as a System.

The next point is related to the previous one. We are already doing everything we can. Finding fault with our performance, or apparent status, simply distracts us from heeding our current intentions. It is a detour. We are tempted to search for safety, and to judge ourselves by how much safety we think we have. Helen Keller said, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” The daily news reminds us that there is no safe haven.

Many people seek money and recognition as safe harbors. With any thought at all we recognize how illusory that safety really is.

I have learned that what matters is to pay attention to what is happening now. Most of us, including me, are quite delusional. I am still ruled by experiences from my childhood many decades ago. I think of them often, and I feel vulnerable to them even though the players in these memories died long ago. The imprints can be quite durable. David Bohm, and others, point out how our thoughts serve as a fog machine. Yoga, done right, helps us clear the fog.

The real challenge, Charlotte Joko Beck reminds us in her book, Nothing Special, is to pay attention. She says, “Awareness is our life when we are not doing something else.” She adds, “We should not try to be aware; we’re always aware unless we’re caught in our self-centered things. That’s the point of labeling our thoughts.” The teachers say that our deliberate efforts are just another attempt to escape. The real challenge is to simply pay attention.

The key to relationships with other people—and all life forms—is to recognize our kinship with them. We are taught to rate and rank people, and to compare ourselves with them. The Supreme Court recently declared, by a tiny margin of 5 to 4, that we may not officially condemn people who are gay or lesbian. We can only do it unofficially.

kinship: a sharing of characteristics or origins

Kinship, I think, is the greatest failure of the human race at the present time. We search for ways to be different, and to disqualify people and other creatures that we can appear to dominate. We do everything we can to “excel” rather than bond and share.

What I have learned is this. The only way to be “better” is to pay closer attention. Paying attention reveals to us our connections with life. Our connections with life inspire us to love and to bond. That, as I understand it, is the “meaning” of life. Life does not need a meaning. It speaks for itself.


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