Selfless Improvement

Charlie Ambler
Nov 28, 2016 · 3 min read
Magritte, 1958

“We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real, and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.”
Thomas Merton

I do not like the term “Self Improvement”, generally speaking. It is named in such a way that prevents people from actually doing the work required to live more fully. The word ‘improvement’ is like the word ‘progress’. It implies that the moment is not enough. It implies that you are not enough. And so you feel inferior right off the bat. You feel thirsty. This is no way to start a journey, and the quickest way to end it prematurely.

When we do things like meditate, exercise, eat well, give up bad habits, or love more mindfully, we are not becoming someone else or someone better. We are simply settling into our true selves. Everyone wants to live a valuable life. The difference between those who do and those who don’t is usually just a matter of reflection and effort. You are not becoming better, you are just settling into who you are and learning how to make this work for you.

This is a far more constructive way to approach “self improvement”. It lets us zone in on what we actually have to do today, rather than feeling embarrassed about the past or anxious about the future. What can you do today to ‘do you’? It might mean releasing an old grudge, quitting a bad habit, going to the gym, meditating, or just calling a loved on and saying hello. It could mean any number of things. But the key is that we don’t do these thing to improve. We don’t do these things to imitate great people or become someone who we’re not; that just leads us further away from the path. We do these things because they are the fabric of a meaningful life.

The idea of self improvement is a marketing sham; it often consists in simply making oneself better at making money, having sex, or feeling good feelings all of the time. This is a very shallow modern interpretation. We should reach further, and ironically that usually means scaling down our ambitions a bit and not being afraid to get our hands dirty. Instead of trying to change the world, try to make your world a compassionate and mindful place. Help you and those around you grow instead of thinking so abstractly. Do work that rewards you. Take risks and confront fears. Suffer when you have to. All of these behaviors strengthen your true self and help you access who you really are. It needs no improving, you’ve just lost it through countless layers of conditioning.

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Charlie Ambler

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