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Non-Self-Improvement

May 30, 2015
'Griffith Park Meditation' by Kevin Labianco via Flickr.com

‘Griffith Park Meditation’ by Kevin Labianco via Flickr.com

I’ve been on this self-improvement kick for a while now. I guess that’s what to call it anyway: self-improvement. It’s a broad category, but in my case, I’m concerned with bodily health and productivity. I’m not unhealthy, but I was starting to see certain trends in my life that could lead to it. Productivity is actually a large peice of the health puzzle, because feeling rushed, unmotivated, or like I don’t have enough time is a strong ‘push’ factor in unhealthy behaviors. Using my time more productively and deliberately actually brings the balance and space needed to look after myself physically. Being healthier simply results in an overall increase in wellbeing – I feel better and happier for longer periods of time. What’s not to like?

Well, a lot of things, actually. I don’t like exercise very much. I don’t like a lot of ‘healthy’ foods. I don’t like getting up on time in the morning. I’m not actually very fond of meditation. But these are all very short-term, momentary discomforts.

When I spend twelve minutes doing mildly strenuous yoga in the morning, the other 948 minutes of my waking day are observably improved. I even sleep better and I feel a psychological sense of accomplishment. When I go for a fifteen minute walk in the mid-afternoon, I return to my desk with half a dozen problems solved. Staring at my computer screen can’t accomplish that. When I take the dog for a thirty minute walk, his happiness is contageous.

When I slowly started introducing more healthy foods into my diet and crowding out the unhealthy ones, I didn’t actually feel like I was giving anything up. I’m not “on a diet;” I’m just changing. We can actually change our tastes, change what we find delicious over time, which is good news. The bad news is that we can’t do this tomorrow. It has taken me over ten years to move away from the Midwestern meat and potato diet I was raised with and develop a taste for healthy salads, vegetables, legumes, and seafood. Living near a vibrant farmer’s market for several years in my twenties helped. Living near the ocean in my thirties has refined my palate further. All this has kept me at a healthy weight and healthy wasteline.

When I can stick to my morning routine, which means getting up on time, my entire day goes smoother. Having a morning routine has been strongly correlated with productivity in other areas of life, even if the rest of the day is less predictable. Discipline is a muscle and a morning routine, rather than being boring, is a way to exercise that muscle and keep it in shape. My morning routine includes meditation. When I meditate I strengthen my ability to be present and less distracted in the rest of my life, further improving my productivity, my personal relationships, and my overall sense of wellbeing.

This is a fifteen year project, but I’ve only been deliberate about it for the past five. Maybe that is a side effect of not being twenty anymore. Some books I’ve really enjoyed on this quest include Switch, about habits and behavior change, The Willpower Instinct, about, well, willpower, Essentialism, about how to do less, The Blue Zones Solution, about how we eat and live, and Quiet, about the “power of introverts.” Each of these has a firm basis in rigorous research correlated across many fields and includes both the theoretical background, results from empirical tests, and pragmatic instructions for change. (Essentialism is slightly more manifesto-like, but I enjoyed it anyway.) Moreover, I found that it was helpful to read the books about habits, behavior change, and willpower before doing research on diet, exercise, and other healthy habits. I consumed these books over the past three years in between reading on many other topics.

You might wonder, at some point, why no Buddhist books? This is “Dharma” Cowgirl after all.

My Buddhist studies are integral to this transformation. They continue largely in the context of my academic work. Now that summer is here, I have returned to personal reading, finally tacking the classic What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. I can clearly see the impact of this work, first published in 1959, had on American Buddhism and, in a very direct way, on me even though this is my first time reading it. Buddhism deeply informs my ongoing “self-improvement” project.

Of course, I get a giggle out of the idea of improving a self that really doesn’t exist as such. It’s more like non-self-self-improvement, or simply anattaanicca. Change in the non-self nature of “my” existence. 

Yet, I am encouraged to continue my steady progress. Improving the quality of my life improves the conditions in which I practice.

I do not believe this is always true. We can get caught up in “self-improvement” just like any other addiction, chasing the next fad, the newest exercise routine, the most “natural” cure. There is a great deal of room for tanha, craving, in self-improvement. Reifying the self is a real danger. The quest for self-improvement can often create a samsaric cycle. It can be fueled by the dukkha (suffering) of self-criticisim and a deep sense of worthlessness or by competition and a desire to be better than others. It can also perpetuate dukkha, as when it turns into anorexia or plastic surgery gone wrong or the blind pursuit of wealth and success that induces harm to others and heart attacks by age fifty.

Buddhism tempers my interest in self-improvement because I know that the self I am improving is, by it’s nature, transitory, subject to suffering, source of suffering, stress, old age, illness, and death. It places my self-improvement within a framework of steps towards enlightenment. By keeping my body healthy, my mind strong, and my emotions at ease, I give myself more years of good practice and I am better able to help others.

I read the secular books through a mind already intimately familiar with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Not everything passes muster, but much of it, especially in relation to human psychology and social life, is actually very well alligned with Buddhist teaching. Social science and neuroscience are, if anything, proving Buddhism correct. They also frame change and life interventions within the modern American cultural context, something that ancient Buddhist texts, or even a book a recent as Rahula’s, simply cannot do. I believe they hold immortal and universal truths, but they can’t point out a useful iPhone app, describe a method for managing my email inbox, or provide a list of healthy ingredients easily found in American supermarkets. So there is a necessary balance here, too.

Buddhists should not be afraid of “self-improvement” as too ego-centric. Nor should we be obsessed with it to the point of fixation. I see it simply as karma. If my self doesn’t really exist as a fixed entity, then I need not fear it’s change, particularly if I work to slowly change it in a positive way. Beware the illusion of control, however. I’m still reconing with the karma of my genetic disposition to sleep late and cultural disposition towards burgers and fries. All my past karma is like the flow of a river, so I needn’t be overly frustrated when change is slow and hard. The river is much bigger than I am and that’s not my fault. Luckily, I have a paddle!

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