Is self improvement a form of mental masturbation?

Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will
be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity. — Laotzu

There is a lot of content out there at the moment talking about loving yourself as a major proposition to establish a balance in life. Hence the expression to love yourself first, before you can love others. It might be true, but it also might be total bullshit. Who says that doing good for others might not lead to loving yourself? Or that showing compassion and gratitude towards your surroundings, towards those little joyful moments we encounter daily, will establish a greater sense of self-respect and is probably necessary for the ultimate goal of being in balance with yourself.

As Sam Chase puts it in his book “Yoga and the pursuit of happiness”: “If we keep on reciting the mantra that we have to learn to care for ourselves first, our compassion for others withers on the vine waiting for an idealized moment that will never arise. Selflove undoubtedly improves the love we spread, but the opposite can be just as true.”

In yoga, there exists a belief that balance is just another form of movement. In a balancing posture, your body is constantly moving to counteract the natural urge of falling. So these tiny stabilizing motions become the crucial factors in a position you priorly perceived as a mere act of rest.

What if to forge harmony in our mind it requires a similar form of movement? Modest stretches in various directions to promote a state of peace. If a balancing act requires a strong physique and an engaged core, the mind might need its own form of practice. I am not solely speaking about tranquil thoughts possibly attained through meditation or a similar practice of such, what interests me is that kind of cognitive state in which our thoughts stop worrying about trivial issues. The constant drive to some sort of improvement, the negative nagging conflicting upon ourselves, those days when everything is just going well, but we still fall into minor depressions and self-doubt. Why are we wired this way and how may we eliminate this collective suffering to a point where simple acceptance of the now is our highest achievable goal.

In “Mindfulness in Plain English” we learn that: “All of life, every bit of it from the infinitesimal to the Pacific Ocean, is in motion constantly. You perceive the universe as a great flowing river of experience. Your most cherished possessions are slipping away, and so is your very life. Yet this impermanence is no reason for grief. You stand there transfixed, staring at this incessant activity, and your response is wondrous joy. It’s all moving, dancing, and full of life. — Henepola Gunaratana

I am aware of numerous paths and proven studies suggesting a diverse range of possibilities to help reform our fucked up minds, but who will assure the chance of success in such an endeavor? What if we embark on an intensive meditative journey or an array of self-improvement habits, painstakingly acquired to finally realize that the fruits we so hoped to reap are nothing more than moldy peaches?

Probably the question lies in the what if? What do we have to lose if we try to improve our daily routines, our compassion, our general state of well being? But what do we dare to lose if we do not engage in this current trend of self-growth? It seems that everywhere we turn our heads, another chance appears to rid ourselves of old habits, to eat better, exercise more and just be the best version of oneself. Although I mostly agree that these things are something worth striving for, it feels to be losing a sense of authenticity due to its ubiquitous occurrence in this day and age.

According to Tyler Durden — the main character in the screen adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club — “Self-improvement is masturbation,” he suggests that self-destruction on the other hand is: fill in the blank. This deeply philosophical question is centered around the life of the second main character in the novel. An unnamed protagonist trying to cure his insomnia through a penchant for Swedish furniture and an underlying compulsion to perfectionism attained through a perfectly outfitted apartment.

But what does Tyler mean by that? Masturbation is a quick fix. A brief moment of pleasure. Contrasting to forming a life long habit which will benefit you over an extended period, we have to distinguish between pleasure, superficial joy and real lasting happiness. Let’s take Fight Club as an example to further illustrate this point: When the unnamed protagonist loses all his material possessions due to an explosion of his apartment, his alter ego Tyler shares an epiphany: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

And although I love my neat four walls and the Danish furniture, it’s important to know that these are not the essentials for attaining happiness. It’s the relationships, the ideas we cherish, the fulfilling work we do and the good we may bring to others and our environment.

In the Sanskrit “Gita,” Krishna teaches us three core pillars:

1. Action to shape our world with passion and purpose
2. Believe in something bigger than yourself
3. Connection with one another, whether it be a community or loved ones

Acquiring a true state of happiness might just be as simple as that. And whatever aid you choose to achieve those three principles is entirely up to you. Experiment, fiddle, recover, fail, succeed, reevaluate, try again. This is all we have, all we can do and why should we not? Wouldn’t life be a mundane waste of time without giving it all a go?

I believe what it all comes down to is giving yourself the time to evaluate what you consume. Whether it be a thought provoking book, a movie, or just a decent conversation. Stop! Let your thoughts settle and dissect the information you just absorbed.

The most important thing in self-improvement is the testing phase and the experimentation. If you just read one stimulating book after the other, self-improvement indeed becomes a kind of masturbation.

By devouring all this inspiring content, positive signals get sent to your brain, and you think: “This is so true, I am revelated” and then jump onto the next medium which gives you another form of satisfaction. This endless loop is comparative to steadily jacking off 
your cognitive part of the body and you become repellent to real change.

All we get are one night stands with good looking ideas. Rather we should lay down a book, pick up a pencil, take notes and give ourselves time to act upon our recently inhaled wisdom. Once we have succeeded or failed, it does not make a difference for that matter, as long as we have tried. After the experimentation part is done, reassess your process and make assumptions why it worked or didn’t. Not every input is the one we are looking for. It depends on different stages of our lives. A book which gave you a great push as a twenty-year old, might bore you years down the road.

If we engage in this more mindful approach to consuming, this intellectual masturbation might turn more into making love with a person you care deeply about. You might quarrel from time to time, and you might not be on the same page now and then, but in the end, it turns into a learning experience, about yourself and about others. You close the book, plainly lying there, absorbing all the positive energy and enjoy the moment. It might take a while until your next consumption, but that is all good because you can foster on the experience for a longer period.

Books I recommend reading on this topic:
- Yoga and the pursuit of Happiness — Sam Chase
- The Art of Happiness — Dalai Lama
- Mindfulness in Plain English — Henepola Gunaratana
- Daily Stoic—Ryan Holiday
- Fight Club the Movie

I hope you liked this short excursion into our endless quest to serenity, if so I would be thrilled if you would share this article, follow along and give me one of these little green hearts. 
Thank you, with lots of love. Max.