The truth about self-improvement and becoming “the best version of yourself”
Many people live in total oblivion of the spiritual side of life, and they are happy. They feel content believing only what they can touch and see, and they are satisfied chasing material pleasures, acquiring possessions and achieving positions. It is their freedom to choose to live that way, and no one has the right to try convincing them otherwise.
An equally valid truth is that many people seek spiritual growth and are certain that the “awakening of the humankind” is not a myth, some even consider consciousness development their top priority. They too are free to choose to live this way and no one has the right to belittle their beliefs.
I wanted to put this forward before diving into my article, in order to make it clear that I am not out to change anybody’s mind about anything.
My goal is to write, as well as I can, and to put my ideas out in the world, allowing them the freedom to find their own way. If someone benefits from them, Hallelujah! And whatever happens, I did my part: I showed up for my end of the deal with Life.
If the old exclusivist approach applies, where one is either a materialist or a spiritual person, I don’t belong to either of the two groups mentioned above. The separation between the material and the spiritual is illusory in my view. I see a bridge between the two and I recognize the usefulness of “bridge-people” like myself in the world today. The human life can be a never-ending quest for higher or deeper meaning and universal or divine oneness, but it is also meant to be enjoyed. We ought to honor all its pleasures, the material, the sensual, the sensory, the aesthetic, the intellectual, the ones deriving from accomplishment, and the spiritual, alike.
I believe this life is a gift of time which must be used well, to learn and develop clear consciousness, but we need to do that while actually being human with all that it entails.
I’m saying this after having lived the monk-like experience and having enjoyed it wholeheartedly. I love the peace, the undisturbed focus, the purity of living in a homogenous environment where you can lock out disturbing influences from others and have the luxury to just deal with your own mess. I delight in the safety of simplicity.
However, at a certain moment (I believe it was when I got ready for the next phase of my consciousness development) I realized that my monk-like life is only half of the story. It dawned on me that although the privilege of isolation is truly wonderful to me, I need to be able to find peace and joy in the messy environment of human interactions as well. It was a huge challenge, especially when confronted with the enormous gaps in the different levels of consciousness at which different humans function. But the deeper I ventured in the jungle of human nature, the fuller my experience as a human being became. I began honoring Life in its whole, and I could marvel at how it was unfolding around me in all its splendor.
More and more I began noticing and understanding the contrasting details about the people who are travelling the other way around, on the other side of the highway, coming from- or still anchored in materialism. Those who dislike silence and loath solitude, who cannot differentiate between loneliness and aloneness, who limit talking to gossiping about people and complaining about events, who find it boring to seek the deeper meaning of ideas and don’t need to understand anything. Those who judge Life as deficient or unfair because it falls short of their expectations, and those who cannot help but judge everyone around because they continuously judge themselves. The most sophisticated among them: those who are eager to improve themselves and are convinced that they can achieve the best version of themselves by mental force. To them Spirituality is trivial.
My challenge was to see them all through the covers and to remember that underneath the messiness they too are clear consciousness just like me. The difference was that while I was busy most of my life removing veils, they were busy adding layers. It was just a matter of direction. I realized that accepting them as they are and admiring Life’s richness and diversity as it manifests through them, was the best way for me to enjoy human interaction and also to advance my own spiritual growth.
I never questioned whether Spirituality is important, but throughout the decades of my spiritual breakthroughs I learned the significance of clarifying the definition of Spirituality. Blind faith and dogma cannot be involved; the focus must be on self-awareness and consciousness development. Deep within myself, I always knew that true Spirituality has to do with meaningfulness, joy and peace. I’ve been born this way, gifted with faith in Higher Powers and in an order to things that reaches beyond the duality of “do-right-&-you-will-get-rewards” versus “do-wrong-&-you-will-get-punished”. Another gift that Life generously granted me is my inquisitive mind which enjoys finding out why I am the way I am and simply cannot help searching for deeper meaning in most everything. To me, true Spirituality entails both prayer and research, trust and doubt, the experience of meditative stability and transcendent wisdom along with gathering knowledge and turning it into understanding. That’s why I felt an instant alignment with the Buddha’s teachings which warn against blind faith:
“Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations; do not believe in anything because it is rumored and spoken by many; do not believe merely because a written statement of some old sage is produced; do not believe in conjectures; do not believe in that as truth to which you have become attached from habit; do not believe merely the authority of your teachers and elders.
But rather, after observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and gain of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
My brave choice to reenter society made me into an alien dropped on a new planet. I’ve been continuously bombed with projectiles. Some were precision rockets, others loose projectiles. Personally, I find the latter more dangerous. They all came from the often scary but always surprising “otherness”.
Thanks to my spiritual training, I could be curious and non-judgmentally analytical, that’s why I could handle them. Moreover, thanks to the self-awareness I developed throughout my spiritual training, I could restrain from escalating the drama and the conflicts.
My main focus every day was to be clear consciousness in all life situations and in all my interactions. This was no different than in my monk-like life, but my new circumstances demanded much greater vigilance. Nonetheless, the main point is: I could handle my new circumstances and I could enjoy my life. Should the materialists be dropped in my monk-like life, I don’t think it would work out so smoothly. I contemplated whether the bliss of the ignorant and the security of the materialists who deny the value of spiritual growth, are weaker forces than the call within that drives a Seeker of Truth.
So, I set out to research the legitimacy of the spiritual thirst, especially the need for self-awareness and consciousness development.
My search for indications (deliberately not called “evidence”) took me first back to Ancient Greece. Socrates, who was considered the wisest man in Athens and whose wisdom was acknowledged by Pythia, the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (the most prestigious and authoritative oracle among the Ancient Greeks and the most powerful woman of the classical world), was an ardent advocate of self-examination. He taught people both to think critically and to reflect: “Know thyself! The unexamined life is not worth living”. Dedicated to reasoning, Socrates believed strongly in the importance of asking the uncomfortable questions in order to better understand the meaning of Life. His notions of ethics, virtue and truth live through centuries. Today, Socrates is acknowledged as the founder of Western philosophy and the most influential thinker ever.
His most brilliant student, Plato, wrote down Socrates’ teachings and built on them his own views. He carried on Socrates’ work, teaching in the Platonic Academy of Athens — the educational institution which he founded and is regarded as the world’s first university. Plato is known as the father of idealism in philosophy, as he developed the view that the good life requires not just a certain kind of knowledge (as Socrates had suggested) but also habituation to healthy emotional responses and therefore harmony between the three parts of the soul: reason, spirit and appetite.
Plato’s greatest student was another highly influential philosopher: Aristotle, who claimed that human beings have a natural desire and capacity to know and understand the truth, to pursue moral excellence, and to instantiate their ideals in the world through action. Today, Aristotle is recognized as the first genuine scientist in history. He made pioneering contributions to all areas of philosophy and science, he invented the field of formal logic, and he identified various scientific disciplines and explored their relationships to each other.
The domino effect started by Socrates’ teachings about the importance of knowing the self, is remarkable. To me, the realizations of Plato and Aristotle are expressions of human brilliance, which happen when people function through the true self, when clear consciousness shines through them. The call for self-awareness launched by Socrates planted precious seeds that changed the evolution of humanity. Socrates proclaimed the work of self-discovery is the way “to make oneself an ethical human being” and “to care for one’s soul”. He saw this as the purpose of living and the only way to live a good life. Hence his pledge to “save” the people who were living for material goods, power and the pleasures of the flesh. He died for his beliefs but provided powerful indications supporting the legitimacy of the spiritual thirst.
Unlike Socrates, I don’t consider it my mission to save people from the dangers of living unexamined lives, simply because I learned that no one can be saved from themselves. Moreover, respecting the freedom of each human to live their lives as they see fit, as unconsciously as that may be, is much more pleasant for me. I truly believe that everyone is responsible for themselves; thus, although underneath the covers of our personalities we are all the same clear consciousness, it is up to every one of us to look out for our own spiritual growth and the personal happiness implicit in it.
People with Messiah Complex would surely jump to my throat now, accusing me of selfishness, but they too would be much happier if they would just keep busy minding their own business of self-discovery and saving themselves.
To me, honest and true Spirituality stands on these six pillars: self-love, self-acceptance, self-care, self-appreciation, self-respect, and self-worth. In the same line, consciousness development means becoming aware of my parts, the conditionings of my mind and the different selves that make up the covering layers underneath which clear consciousness awaits its manifestation through the human being who I am.
Self-focus is essential to spiritual growth. But the more I become able to be clear consciousness in all life situations, the more genuine compassion I have for others.
I believe that my soul is clear consciousness, and it took human form for this lifetime so it can develop through learning the secret lessons of Life, both terrifying and wonderful. In other words, I believe that the call within, which drove me to be a Seeker of Truth and a spiritual person, came from my soul. When I’m aligned with my soul’s purpose to manifest clear consciousness through the human being who I am, there is peace in me, regardless of if I live as a monk or as a socialite. The latter makes the journey complete, whereas the former makes the journey worthwhile.
The glitter of Life can be enjoyed, but only if stillness is present underneath. The play of humans functioning at different levels of consciousness is interesting when that play is watched through the compassionate eyes of clear consciousness.
By paying attention to our spiritual growth and developing self-awareness we empower ourselves to be clear consciousness in whatever we do. We are free to participate in the drama of life and we are free to enjoy all material pleasures. But they will not overwhelm us.
In my view, the more we know and understand about ourselves, the less ignorance we carry and the less suffering we experience. Socrates was very pragmatic and took a black or white view on Life: “there is only one good: knowledge and one evil: ignorance”. I learned that the truth about Life is more to be found in the many shades of grey. Ignorance, to me, is ego-dominance, which must be clearly differentiated from the ego. The ego is not bad, but letting it dominate our lives always backfires on us, so we need to intervene when that happens. Of course, this requires us to know in which way the ego manifests in us. Our ability to recognize the ego in ourselves enables us to deal with other people’s egos in useful and meaningful ways. That’s why knowing our parts is a central element of spiritual growth.
The trick which Life plays on us, which simultaneously is also the wonder of how masterfully it is designed, is that we must always prevent or disrupt ego-dominance but at the same time we need to accept and even love the ego in us.
Naturally, this creates quite some confusion and in the foggy mist many people end up rejecting or fighting the ego, when in fact we only need to watch it and direct it.
I often compare the ego to a puppy. The ego needs guidance from the human being, or else, just like an untrained puppy, it makes a mess of our lives. The more we learn about our ego, the better we get at guiding it and putting it in the service of the welfare of the human beings who we are. In line with the “ego = puppy” allegory, ego-dominance is like an untrained puppy. Ignore training and you are faced with poop in unwanted places, destroyed shoes and lots of nervous barking. Eliminate ego-dominance and you are free to enjoy all the cuteness of the puppy. Besides the obvious benefits for you, the puppy himself is also happier when trained. Picture a puppy running after his tail or barking at thin air. That unhappy sight is ego-dominance.
The ego thinks that it wants to dominate, but actually it is happiest when its talents are used well while serving the human. Then it achieves its most coveted goal: assurance of its existence and its importance. Thus, there is nothing wrong in celebrating the ego. It is very clever, even cunning, which means that we have lots of great qualities to channel into doing good for our lives. The ego thrives on control because it doesn’t know better as it fears its own disappearance. That’s why it insists on dominance, especially in unconscious humans who don’t assume responsibility for their lives.
I understand consciousness development as the way through which we get inspired and empowered to give the ego a better alternative: by taming it to use its capacities for the welfare of the human beings who we are, we help it relax and feel reassured.
To do this, we need to have the determination to study the ego’s game, attentively and thoroughly. We need to know ourselves, be aware of all our parts and the conditionings which drive us, and train ourselves to recognize the specific manifestations which the ego produces in us. I believe this is what Socrates’ “know thyself” entails. When we live this way, we cannot do wrong anymore and we are always honest.
Then, even the most problematic traits of our personalities become just another way in which Life manifests through us. Even the roughest of our cracks become wonderful windows which let light in.
This view digs deeper into the meaning of the human life than Socrates’ view. He maintained that nobody willingly chooses to do wrong, because doing wrong always harms the wrongdoer and nobody seeks to bring harm upon themselves. He blamed all wrongdoing on ignorance. I can follow Socrates’ logical reasoning, but I believe that there is more to humans than just self-preservation. There has to be! The motivation to not harm on purpose must have more substance than protecting the doer. It comes down to the clear consciousness we are in our essence, which is the same in all of us, and which shines through when ego-dominance is kept at bay. The essential goodness of people is brought forward when consciousness development is awarded attention, when the spiritual work of self-discovery is given importance in humans’ lives.
However, eliminating ego-dominance is a continuous exercise and a process that follows the loops-design. We get some understanding, so we advance a bit forward. We gain some confidence, so the circle goes upwards, but then, on top of the loop, our understanding is being tested. And with each of our parts and every manifestation that the ego produces in us, we most certainly will fail the first few tests. The pull of ego-dominance is so strongly empowered by childhood and other conditionings that inevitably, instead of keeping direction at the top of the loop, we will descend circling backwards. Hence, we’ll go again through a portion of the way which we’ve already travelled.
Consciousness development is not for the impatient. Be kind to yourself because every micro-inch counts. Life is about enjoying the ride in each moment. The soul took a human form to experience the human condition.
In the bigger picture of Life, in that masterfully constructed grand design, the time spent in your current human form serves the growth of clear consciousness, even if you don’t care about Spirituality.
When we do care however, the privilege of this human life becomes more available to us. Through our own self-work, we learn how to make meaningful contributions in the world. Through self-acceptance and self-understanding, we reach self-actualization, where our best potentialities shine. I believe this is how one can describe living well. This is what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said that happiness is not a goal, but the by-product of a life lived well. I even dare to state that the pursuit of happiness per se is a non-sense endeavor. We do not have to do anything especially for happiness.
Happiness happens while we advance our consciousness development, while we get to know our parts and we accept them with their strengths and weaknesses.
Happiness happens while we do the self-work required for eliminating ego-dominance and we free the ego from its fear of disappearance so it can thrive in its rightful place as a valued “employee” of the human enterprise.
Happiness happens while we embrace the specific aspects which the ego takes in us, especially our weaknesses and our nastiness, and we let light shine through those cracks.
The more we focus on these endeavors, the more able we become to experience flow, and not only while doing things we’re good at, but also while doing anything, perhaps even everything.
My fellow Hungarian researcher Csíkszentmihályi Mihály introduced the concept of flow in 1975, describing a state of complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. He drew attention to a then-new concept which in the meantime is well-known: ‘being in the zone’ defined as “feeling perfect focus, engagement, fulfilment and skill”. But Csíkszentmihályi went further than simply presenting this concept. He put it in context, and he stated that flow fosters happiness. In other words: when we experience flow, we feel happy.
As creatures of conditioning, we humans are motivated to do actions that result in us feeling happy. So the experience of flow strengthens human motivation for actions conducive to flow. This is the foundation for the concept of intrinsic motivation (when we act driven by our internal sense of satisfaction and our personal set of values) — a concept radically different than extrinsic motivation when we act aiming to get some reward or to avoid some punishment.
Flow explains the dominant role of intrinsic motivation in human behavior: we are motivated to undertake actions and to maintain behaviors which result in flow, because we feel some form of happiness whenever we are experiencing flow.
The important detail here is that this motivation comes from within us and therefore it is similar to the call within I feel to be a Seeker of Truth and a spiritual person. My soul’s call is in fact intrinsic motivation, which in turn is triggered by the flow that I experience through spiritual practice, contemplation, and critical thinking.
In the light of this conclusion, let me address an innocent rhetorical question to the people who limit their lives to material experiences and who reject Spirituality: “Is your choice intrinsically motivated or are you just aiming to get some reward or to avoid some punishment?”
My inquiry is not isolated. Science got interested in the question of what makes people do actions that are internally driven, and the result was the extensive and impressive work of esteemed scientists Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, who have developed ‘The Self-Determination Theory’ — a revolutionary paradigm which sets people’s life goals into two categories:
1.) Extrinsic — wealth, fame and attractiveness
2.) Intrinsic — affiliation, generativity and personal development
Deci and Ryan’s work shows that we humans are most strongly driven by the life goals in the second category: affiliation (i.e., relationships), generativity (i.e., making our mark in the world, delivering our own meaningful contribution) and personal development (i.e., understanding the self).
‘The Self-Determination Theory’ and its applications are vastly documented and today a substantial scientific knowledgebase attests to the significance of spiritual growth and self-awareness in the human life.
I understand the awakening of the humankind as the weight shifting in the balance between the people who ignore spiritual growth and those who embrace it.
The irony is that many of the people who belittle the value of spiritual growth and consciousness development, are eager to bring out the best versions of themselves, to improve their skills, and to become something that their environment, their peers and their own selves approve of.
An even greater irony is that the coveted ideal selves are defined by the very conditionings which need to be transcended in order for those people to truly function at their best, meaning to be authentic, a.k.a. to function through their true selves, a.k.a. to be clear consciousness.
In other words, eagerness to improve yourself while ignoring consciousness development, is like trying to get free by wanting to change the features of your shackles. You will just end up with different and possibly improved shackles, which will restrict you more efficiently than before.
You cannot heal a tree by fixing the branches. But if you heal the trunk, the branches will grow healthy, strong and fruitful.
When we function through our true selves and we are clear consciousness in our actions, reactions and interactions, the improvement of our skills happens organically. Then the best version of ourselves is who we are.
Abraham Maslow placed self-actualization on the top of his pyramid of human needs. He created this pyramid while initiating a crucial shift in Psychology and Mental Health: a new focus on what makes people healthy and happy instead of the old obsession with the factors that make people sick and unhappy. Maslow laid out the foundation for Positive Psychology and his research has proved that self-actualization is a human need directly and significantly related to happiness.
This implies the bold conclusion that we cannot feel utterly satisfied and contented unless we reach our highest potentialities. That’s why all of us care about reaching our own personal best, even if Spirituality is completely denigrated.
When the fulfillment of our psychological needs happens through (or at least alongside) consciousness development, when Spirituality helps our climb on Maslow’s pyramid, we achieve self-actualization through the subpeaks of self-understanding and self-acceptance. Then we are authentic, and our best potentialities come forth in our actions. Then we think the right thoughts, we say the right words and our communications are wisdom, and we do the right actions.
As we advance in self-understanding and self-acceptance, we get closer to eliminating ego-dominance and the clear consciousness in us shines through in more and more life situations. We function more and more often through the true self (as opposed to through ego-dominance), and the consequences of our decisions and actions become more and more positive. This is how we plant our flag at the summit of self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s pyramid.
It is not about becoming somebody better.
You don’t need to change who you are.
Simply knowing your parts is enough.
This is what true Spirituality does. It comes with a transformation that is impossible to miss. You feel the relaxation that you are OK as you are, and others notice a certain nobility that radiates from your being. The light in you honors the light them. You meet at the level of clear consciousness, underneath the layers of your egos and conditionings.
Ernest Hemingway talked about nobility as such: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self”.
I believe he understood “being superior to your former self” as “being more honest about who you are, and therefore more authentic”.
Ranking yourself compared to others, or judging your former self, are wasteful actions. The only comparisons worth making are in fact observations: your conditionings no longer have such a tight hold on you and your cracks no longer feel as painful as before. Or your interactions and communications are more pleasant and more meaningful, even when conflicts arise.
True Spirituality begins with identifying our parts and the different conditionings of our minds. We were born with an impressive load of expectations. At the moment of our birth, we already had a name, a family, a religion (even if it was atheism), a nationality, a country — all of which came with their own set of expectations. No wonder that we forgot about clear consciousness.
But again, the trick and the wonder of the grand design of Life makes it that we actually need all those conditionings in order to complete the journey of consciousness development our soul set out to fulfill in our current human life.
Much to our surprise (and often to our horror), our soul chose the exact set of circumstances for our current incarnation. Amazingly, we needed the exact pair of parents to which we were born so we could be faced with the exact set of challenges which we have to our consciousness development.
Life is not random. Our human form is not random.
We were dealt a set of cards and it is up to us to play well the hand which we were given.
In summary, I never questioned the importance of consciousness development and spiritual growth in my life. However, should I have doubts, there are strong indications which support the legitimacy of the spiritual thirst.
I see Life as a continuous exercise in self-discovery and I prefer to approach it with awe, driven by the curiosity to discover my parts and the specific ways in which the ego manifests in me. My weaknesses and less desired or approved parts are the cracks of the human being who I am. I pay special attention to accepting and even loving these cracks, because that’s how they become the windows through which the light of clear consciousness shines into the world though me.
We can function either through ego-dominance or through our true selves. It is up to us which one we choose. When we function through the true self, we allow ourselves to be as we are, and we extend this grace to others too. Then we experience flow and we live in curiosity and admiration for the abundance and the variety of Life. Differently, when we function through ego-dominance, we expect Life to follow a certain script we wrote and continuously re-write, in which we pressure ourselves to be “better” or “our best” as defined by the expectations around and within us.
Thus, eliminating ego-dominance is a worthwhile goal, but the trick is that it can only be done by embracing our egos and especially our cracks. The more self-understanding and self-acceptance we develop, the more true Spirituality we allow and cultivate in our lives, the more self-determination and self-actualization we achieve. Self-determination is when we have the lead of our lives, when we are the masters of our existence. Self-actualization is when we manifest our best potentialities. Both are integral parts of true Spirituality and consciousness development. Trying to bypass this beautifully created system only strengthens ego-dominance and perpetuates misery. As free as we are to live as we see fit, this is a danger that warrants attention.
The relaxation that becomes available for us when we learn to allow ourselves to be as we are, when we make peace with our most “unacceptable” traits and tendencies, and we get to enjoy them as yet another quality of Life or another example of Life’s richness and diversity, is the only true liberation available for human beings. Freedom is an illusion otherwise.