We are constantly bombarded with the notion of self improvement. Just look at the massive growth of the self help industry. There are hundreds of books, blogs and social media pages dedicated to showing us how we can overcome our flaws and become better versions of ourselves. But is this really healthy to our psyche?
I must admit that I too have bought into the self help craze. I was always reading the latest book, trying to find anything that would make me a better person or get rid of the parts of myself that I didn’t like. Then I came across a book by Jack Kornfield that changed my entire view on self improvement.
The Wise Heart
Jack Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in the monasteries of Thailand, India and Burma. On returning to the United States, he dedicated his life to teaching meditation and making buddhist principles accessible to the West.
In “The Wise Heart” Kornfield suggests that instead of trying to suppress or get rid of our perceived flaws, we embrace and accept them. In doing so they lose their power over us. He suggests simple and practical exercises throughout the book to help you discover this for yourself. So what happened when I started practising this philosophy?
I stopped fighting my negative thoughts
“Positive thinking” is big in the self help industry. Most books teach that you should never encourage or engage in negative thoughts. One of the practices Kornfield suggests is to choose a day where you observe all your thoughts from the perspective of an anthropologist—without judgement or resistance. You observe what mental states are present, their level of intensity and how long they last.
When I did this for a few days I realized that when I tried to push away my negative thoughts, they pushed right back. The more you resist, the more they persist. I learned that by simply bringing awareness to them, they faded away eventually. I also stopped identifying with my thoughts. We have thousands of thoughts every day about so many different things. But our thoughts are not who we are. Just knowing this is incredibly freeing and comforting.
I stopped taking myself so seriously
This was a big one for me. I get so uptight about the smallest things. Always fussing, fixing and trying to perfect every little thing I do. And constantly worrying about how my actions are perceived by everyone else.
One of Kornfield’s exercises involves choosing a day to study your sense of self. Notice which times of the day your sense of self is strongest. In what roles/situations is it strongest? How does it feel when self is strong? How does the body feel? How do others respond to this?
This exercise was eye opening for me to say the least. I noticed that my sense of self was strongest when something I perceived as bad happened to me. I had thoughts like “why me?” or “poor me.” Thoughts that painted me as a victim who had been wronged by someone or some unknown force. I then realized that my life is not about me. When I take everything that happens to me personally I am missing the point that life happens and it is not about me, or you, or anyone for that matter.
It just is.
I started to see the beauty in my flaws
This sounds really cliché but it is true for me and I bet it is for you too. Kornfield suggests seeing our personalities as stubborn pets. We can train them to have better manners but for the rest of our lives they will always need a certain amount of affection and care.
I’ve realized that every personality trait I thought was a flaw, once brought to awareness, actually transformed into a strength. My perfectionism allowed me to be dedicated to my craft. My hypersensitivity allowed me to have compassion for others, and my people pleasing, when in check, made me easy going and friendly. I did not need to be ashamed of these traits. I simply needed to be aware of how they could be harmful when left unchecked and allow them to serve me as best as they could.
We all have things about us that we wish we could change. This is natural and part of what makes us human; but we are so much more than our personalities, thoughts and mental states. When we realize this we discover a sense of humour and ease about life. We all need to give ourselves a break and embrace our flaws because they just might be the things that show us how beautiful we are.