Thursday, 14 March 2013

What does it mean to improve oneself?

So... to start this ongoing investigation into the urge for self-improvement I should, by rights, first take a look at just what the hell is meant by self-improvement. Does it mean going to the gym and having a healthy diet? Or perhaps, is it to do with achieving goals and making a success of oneself? Is it, maybe, connected to morality and making sure that we are living a "good" life (whatever that means)?

The fact of the matter is... it is these things and more. As the artists of our own self-creation process - the directors calling the shots on the stages of our lives, if you will - we have as our task a project whose completion is a whole human life. I'm talking, biologically, spiritually, philosophically and many other words ending in "ally".

When viewed as a whole, the task can seem like an unachievable dream. However, like all motivational pundits assert - if you break it down into manageable pieces then there is nothing to fear. People often prevent themselves from achieving things by focusing on the unreasonable seeming amount of time it is apparently going to take away from them. This is an illusion. Time is never taken away in pursuit of the higher goals. Each step of the journey is lived, and as each milestone is reached more satisfaction and pleasure in the journey itself is attained. What, after all, would have replaced the beneficial activities that seem so hard when viewed from afar? Watching the t.v.? Going to the pub? All of these activities give immediate rewards that have a tendency to pale to insignificance in the long run. The amazing plethora of methods modern man has developed precisely for the purpose of killing time is dizzying to behold.

I propose then, that we stop "killing time" and start using it! It seems such a trite thing to say I am wincing as I write it... but it is true nevertheless. On this subject Seneca said "It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. ... The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully." I have to say - I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment!

So what are we to fill our time with then? I hear you cry. What is it that you would have us do? What about yourself you tubby git... are you going to do these things too?

Ahem... now, while I am sure you are all far too polite to actually mention it (as I did just now for you above) I think it is fair to say that I have historically fallen short of this exacting requirement with regards to the good usage of time. I would be hypocritical not to admit that I am still guilty of it nearly every day in some respect. But like every addiction, time wasting is a difficult habit to kick. I am not on the wagon yet, but I'm at least jogging close behind.

Having recognized my imperfections in this respect (amongst others) the next step is to forgive myself, tell the guilt to jog on, and make a plan.

I wish to be the best version of myself that it is possible (context allowing) for me to become.

This is the mission statement I have for myself and one that I urge you to take up yourself. After all, you don't want to be just a mediocre version of yourself, do you? In thirty years time as you're sipping a cup of tea with your grandchildren at your knee do you want (on being asked to tell stories of your life) to have to admit that actually other than going to the office and having a few pints on the weekend with your mates, you didn't really do all that much? I didn't think so!

What parts of that nebulous conglomeration of matter that constitutes the thing you think of as "I" do you actually have the power to change for the better? Lets make a little list...

  1. The physical body
  2. The intellectual capacity
  3. The Moral judgement
  4. The Behavior
  5. The attitude
  6. Rational thought
  7. Emotional wellbeing
  8. Spiritual awareness
In the post following this one I shall start to look at some of the different ways in which one can affect change in these areas (and indeed what type of change is desirable). For now, for the sake of clarity I will simply Identify what I mean by each of these things and let you reflect on these aspects of yourself between now and the next post.

Number one, is pretty self explanatory - this refers to the biological you and all the varying aspects of it that can be influenced by choices of lifestyle.
Number two is a reference to the marvelous faculties of our minds/brains and those aspects of it which we can develop or leave fallow.
Number three and number six belong together really, as these are specific to philosophical views/beliefs and how they affect the way we make decisions in our lives. Moral judgement is the mechanics of the (often subconscious) ethical code that shapes our decisions, while rational thought refers to the critical thinking skills that enable us to analyze and categorize our experiences.
Number four and number five are likewise linked in that the one affects the other and oftentimes this is an area which people mistakenly abdicate responsibility believing themselves to be "just the way they are" and in some way beyond help. By behavior of course, I mean those actions which we undertake in any given situation, and by attitude I mean the system of beliefs and intertwined emotional states that govern our responses to outside stimuli.
Number seven, refers to how our emotions affect us and also the varying degrees to which we are able to affect our emotions. This area contains self-esteem, which is something I will focus on in later posts.
The final area of ourselves that we can affect positive change, is what is referred to as "spiritual awareness" and it has an array of meanings that stretch from superstition right through to transcendental enlightenment. This is intertwined with everything (I can already hear the secularists among you groaning) but don't worry I'm not here to preach. I would simply remind those who do not have any truck with matters "spiritual" that this word (with all its cultural connotations) is merely a description of a type of human experience. It is perfectly rational to conclude that so-called spiritual experiences while not necessarily being truly supernatural, are real experiences that have been interpreted. Also it is rational to accept that particularly with regards to meditation, spiritual practice has demonstrable beneficial effects... so keep an open mind...

I shall leave you to your cogitations and when I return we shall begin the practical side of this investigation. How to decide what change is desirable, and what we need to do to affect that change. Peace.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Welcome one and all to my blog about self-improvement! My hope for this blog is that it provides stimulation and new angles of self-reflection for those who feel the urge to become more than they are.

Not that I'm suggesting you need to change yourself in any way. I'm sure you're lovely just as you are... but seriously though, who doesn't want to be better than they are? It doesn't matter if you are a Nobel Laureate or the CEO of a multinational corporation. Reaching your potential as a human being has little to do with individual achievements and far more to do with sustainable growth and improvement in all areas of one's life. Now, what in the hell does that mean I hear you ask? Are my big house and beautiful family not enough for you? NO! They are great, don't get me wrong. They just aren't the pinnacle. They are a part of the bigger whole.

Life is not a race to the finishing line - and neither should it be measured on end goals. It is the journey itself that is to be celebrated. Every second that we continue along our individual paths of linear existence we are involved in a process of glorious self-creation. Or at least, it should  be glorious. In reality many people, not understanding the potential power that they have over the form and direction of their destiny, allow life to happen to them. They exist as passive participants in their own lives.

This is not anyone's fault. I lived in this manner for a long time and it took external influences to clear my mind of the misconceptions which I had about myself and the Universe I inhabit.

The fact of the matter is, while we should be taught independence of thought and be trained in the skills we need to be self-realizing people when we are growing up, the education systems of Western civilisations just don't take this into account. The more cynical amongst us would no doubt argue that this situation arose intentionally. It seems sometimes that we are trained to obey. The urge to question authority and buck the trend is weaned out of us at an early age. At the very least, the consumerist structure of our capitalist culture seems designed to distract us from doing anything that has any real depth of meaning.

The purpose of this blog, however, is not to gripe about the failures of civilized society. Complaining does not achieve anything. It is important to recognize faults when they are there - but rather than sit and moan, I propose to do something about it.

So, to the matter at hand... Each individual is born with roughly equivalent potential in all fields. There are undoubtedly some genetic factors at work when it comes to identifying things in life that one is particularly good at. The other factors are, however, entirely environmental. The climate, the location, and the socio-political structures of the society one finds oneself in the midst of stand as the greatest inhibiting or encouraging factors in our quest for personal development. It does not have to be that way.

The key factor in successful self-creation is choice. I am not referring to the paralyzing array of consumer choices that the capitalist machine offers it's denizens. I am referring to choice of place, choice of company and choice of action.

You see, in the end the task we have set ourselves is actually very simple in its solutions. There is nothing in the external world (in most cases) which is truly a barrier to us achieving our dreams. The real barriers are inside us. They are the negative thoughts that whisper in the back of your mind that your ambition is unrealistic, or unrealizable. They are the internal critics and naysayers of the mental landscape. What is shocking for many people to realize is that those voices do not come from them. They are strains of negative thought that have been handed down like some filthy heirloom that nobody wants but everybody has.

Dawkins first posited the idea of the 'meme' with his smash-hit populist science book The Selfish Gene. The basic explanation of this idea (itself a meme in its own right) is that ideas behave in many ways like living organisms. They spread like viruses, replicate and reproduce in self organizing systems. Belief systems which are comprised of many interacting and mutually supporting ideas could be considered conceptually analogous to more complicated multicellular organisms.

All memes (negative or otherwise) spread like viruses from one mind to another via the medium of language. Where people fall down, is by accepting the false impression that thoughts create to the effect that the thinker identifies his essence with the thoughts. What is it that you think of as 'I'? Is your mind your thoughts? What is the essence of you? How to answer this question...?

Answer me this one first: When you stop thinking do you stop existing? This is a strange thing to consider, no doubt. Unless you are a practitioner of meditative practices, it is likely that there are few moments in your day to day life that you would consider to be free of thinking. The appearance of there being no silence is an illusion however. There are moments of silence in between the mental chatter that occur many times during your day. You only fail to notice this because you are not trained to spot it when it occurs. Eckhart Tolle explains this more eloquently and clearly than I, so I shall paraphrase briefly. He points to the gap between thoughts. The small space that exists after one thought has reached its conclusion and before another leaps in where it has left off. He points to those moments when one is fully paying attention to the words of another, or something else externally perceived. In those moments of attention our thoughts are at peace. Silence reigns internally and in that silence is where we find our true selves. It is the being which has the thoughts which is you, not the thoughts themselves. What we really are is found in that state of pure being that might be termed 'attentive awareness'.

So if 'I' am the one who has the thoughts and not the thoughts themselves what does this mean for me? How is this relevant to my struggle to develop myself and reach full potential?

When you remember that you are not the same thing as your thoughts, you soon recall that your beliefs are subject to your choices. You can choose to believe something or not to. That negative thought you inherited from your practically minded parents that told you 'Don't study fine art! Most artists struggle to make it big... why should you be any different?'

That thought can be cast aside - you do not want it and you don't need to hold on to it because you know that it is not yours. Self doubt and the fear of failure that such thoughts create are the leading causes of failure in themselves. So when that thought occurs, recognize that it has occurred but give it no more than that. Do not follow that thought as is so often our habit - chasing the rabbit down the hole by building complex imaginary scenarios in our head. We waste so much time and energy upsetting ourselves by imagining things in the future that have not happened and in all likelihood won't, and remembering in detail bad things in the past which we have no power to change. This willful self-punishment serves no purpose!

This is how depression and anxiety are defined. Depression is fixation on negative things in the past. Anxiety is fixation on negative things that have yet to happen. Neither object of worry and fear is real. The only events that are real are those which exist in the now. Enlightened men from many different spiritual traditions have told us this again and again in one way or another. Why are we not taught this at school? It is a shame, but with the pressure being put on schools by the culture in which they exist, to produce educated children with high exam results, they in turn put pressure on their pupils saying things like: 'Think about your future! You had better study hard... your entire life ahead of you might depend on how well you do!!'

How could this do anything but drill anxiety into the minds of those poor unwitting students?

So then, we find ourselves suddenly in command of our inner selves. Or at least, we are mostly in command. Habits of thought, like habits of any kind, are difficult to give up. Being aware that we have choices with regards to our mental activities is just the first stage. Actively thinking in new positive ways is the next...

I'll leave you hanging with that thought for now, but I hope I have caught your attention. If my style of thought and word meets with your approval, you can also find me on Hubpages at:

Thanks for reading :)