Not too long ago I had the experience of instructing a group of over-achieving women in the practice of mindfulness when I got a lesson myself.
We were sitting in a circle, in one of the women’s basements, our legs crossed, perched on the edge of our pillows when I began to tout my usual line about how the goal of the practice isn’t to be a self-improvement project but instead to just watch the mind with an attitude of loving-friendliness to ourselves.
I was sitting at the front of the room peacefully enjoying my words when I noticed that the women were looking at me like I was crazy. Well, not crazy exactly, just wrong.
They looked around at each other and adamantly agreed to disagree with me.
“But we’re here learning to meditate because it’s going to make us better, right?” they asked each other, nodding away.
“Of course, this is going to make us better. Definitely,” they said.
And in the moment I was too shell-shocked to answer. They were so sure they had to be better I didn’t know how to disagree with them. But later that day it came to me.
If we are trying to find ways to get better then what are we now? Worse?
We live in a world about better, smarter, thinner.
Buy, buy, buy.
Change, change, change.
These mantras scream at us from every billboard, commercial and self-help book.
And it is exhausting.
So, here are five tips on how to end the internal taskforce on self-improvement:
1. Love Your Neurosis.
“Our wisdom is all mixed up with what we call our neurosis. Our brilliance, our juiciness, our spiciness, is all mixed up with our craziness and our confusion, and therefore it doesn’t do any good to try to get rid of our so-called negative aspects, because in that process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness. We can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are and what we’re doing rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing. The key is to wake up, to become more alert, more inquisitive and curious about ourselves.” ~ Pema Chodron
When we think we need to stop being anxious, angry or shy or whatever it is that over the years we have been told we aren’t supposed to be, it is kind of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
We need our anger.
There are things in the world to be angry about. We need to grieve. There are things in the world to grieve about.
Accepting ourselves doesn’t just mean patting ourselves on the back when we do something we like—it also means throwing out the list we have collected over the years about all the ways we are going to change and just experience our neurosis in all its glory.
2. Be Grateful for Your Challenges.
“Our practice is based on the insight of non-duality. Both our negative feelings and positive feelings are organic and belong to the same reality. So there is no need to fight; we only need to embrace and take care. Therefore, in the Buddhist tradition meditation does not mean you transform yourself into a battlefield, with the good fighting the evil. This is very important. You may think you have to combat evil and chase it out of your heart and mind. But this is wrong. The practice is to transform yourself. If you don’t have garbage, you have nothing to use in order to make compost. And if you have no compost, you have nothing to nourish the flower in you. You need the suffering, the afflictions in you. Since they are organic, you know that you can transform them and make good use of them.” ~ Thich Naht Han
I love compost. I spend a lot of time on my little homestead shoveling animal poo into big piles and then watching it heat up, so hot it could burn your hand. I turn it with the shovel again and again and eventually it becomes nourishing soil and we grow food in it.
Your challenges are here. Be patient with them.
So many times people say their challenges were the best experiences of their lives.
“I learned so much.”
“I realized how lucky I am.”
“I have so much more compassion for other humans now.”
We’re not going to live a life where there are never challenges. They’re here, that is just the way it is.
So why not embrace them instead of fighting them?
3. Feelings are just Feelings.
“Working with the primary feelings is a direct route to enlightenment, explained one of my Burmese teachers. The stream of primary feelings is always with us, but we often have the mistaken notion that life is not supposed to be this way. We secretly believe that if we can act just right, then our stream of feelings will always be pleasant and there will be no pain, no loss.
So when a painful experience arises we often try to get rid of it, and when a pleasant experience arises we try to grasp it.
When a neutral experience arises we tend to ignore it. We’re always wanting the right (pleasant) feelings and trying to avoid the wrong (painful) ones. And when they are unpleasant, we react endlessly, struggling to get it right. As we become wiser we realize that fixing the flow of feelings doesn’t work. Primary feelings are simply feelings, and every day consists of pleasant, painful and neutral moments. Our painful experience does not represent failure.” ~ Jack Kornfield
We don’t need to react to every feeling.
They come and they go. It takes a lot of energy to constantly register that there is something we like so we need more of it and something we don’t like so we need less of it.
Not being a self-improvement project means adopting a willingness to experience our life beyond the constant stream of judgement of every experience.
4. It’s Pretty Funny When You Think About It.
“So, if you can combine that moving in the direction of nothing to hide from yourself with humor and loving kindness then the whole thing begins to transform your being.” ~ Pema Chodron
There are so many parts of this human experience that are quite hilarious when we think about.
Can we find the silliness in your own idiosyncrasies instead of making a plan how you need to be different?
Can you just have a little chuckle and return to enjoying the day?
Even if you do this just once the repercussions in how you experience your life will be noticeable.
5. Life Only Happens Now.
“The ego says: Maybe at some point in the future, I can be at peace— if this, that, or the other happens, or I obtain this or become that. Or it says: I can never be at peace because of something that happened in the past. Listen to people’s stories and they could all be entitled ‘Why I Cannot Be at Peace Now.’ The ego doesn’t know that your only opportunity for being at peace is now. Or maybe it does know, and it is afraid that you may find this out. Peace, after all, is the end of ego. How to be at peace now? By making peace with the present moment. The present moment is the field on which the game of life happens. It cannot happen anywhere else.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
If we keep waiting to experience life until we have lost twenty pounds, found a soul mate, finished a PhD, bought the dream house or healed all our childhood wounds we will be always living a life where we are waiting.
Life happens in this moment, and now in this moment.
The line you read at the top of this page is already in the past and the reading of the last line of this article is in the future. Only the reading of this word and now this one is actually happening now.
So, let’s not miss out on our present neurotic lives in exchange for trying to improve ourselves in the hopes of a future perfect life. Instead let’s just show up in all our messy glory to life, as it is, with an attitude of loving friendliness to ourselves and all the experiences that come with being us.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Kim Haas/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Mitya Ku via Flickr