One of the things that led me to create something called “selfless self help” was hearing and reading, a few times, from my fellow Buddhists,
“This is not a self improvement project!”
All right. There are reasons for this statement. The main reason is the idea of what’s known as “basic goodness,” buddha nature, bodhicitta, or maybe even spirit. These are deep philosophical waters, and in a moment I’ll try to elucidate them a bit.
“As human beings, we are basically awake, and we can understand reality.” Chogyam Trungpa
But, stepping back from this concept, the idea of human nature, or the soul, what is so bad about self improvement? Even better than, what is so different between so called self improvement, self help, and the panoply of traditional or nontraditional spiritual approaches? Not very much.
Self improvement aims to make people better- happier, more virtuous, better at making decisions, more efficient at reaching goals and dealing with personal problems. These are things that religion and spirituality also do. They aim to make people happier, or at least allow people to understand the problem of happiness, as I’d call it. Maybe happiness is not possible, or maybe it’s not the best goal in this life, we can understand it better, and understand better how it works for human beings.
Recently, with a friend, we were driving to a Zen center for a daylong retreat, and we talked about this. I said how I find it off putting sometimes how people tend to ask how are you, and the expected response is good, as if to imply that you Should be happy, and if not, you’re failing, you’re doing something wrong. Happiness is a complicated and problematic concept. However, this just means that it’s worth investigating further.
Virtue is the trickiest one to argue, but I can’t imagine any self help system that would tell people to do wrong. They tend to focus on helping oneself more, but this just implies what it leaves out, I think: that being a good person, a helpful person, is a given. Helping oneself is needed as a counterbalance, or the complement of helping others. Obviously, the major religions of the world have had much to say on the topic of what virtue is. This is related to virtue: decision making is inextricably linked to doing right versus doing wrong. Philosophy has shown, in detail, the crazy variations of taking this question to logical extremes. The play Hamlet is a literary example of this quandary and its problems. Still, taking action and virtue are linked, whether or not we go all wonky and use logic to confuse ourselves, or keep it simple.
Both religion and self help deal with goal meeting, and dealing with personal problems. One often uses more scientific way of explaining things, or a more secular way. Self help tends to use a more common sense, or businesslike approach. However, reaching a goal is reaching a goal. Solving a problem is solving a problem. The real question is, does it work?
Back to the issue of basic goodness. The usual Buddhist objection to the idea of self improvement is that people are already good. We are good enough, et cetera. We are perfect, in our own way. Trying to fix yourself is a waste of time. Trying to fix anything, or anyone, is really a waste of time. It’s kind of aggressive, isn’t it? Just let things be. Life is inherently good. Maybe you’ve heard this line of reasoning. It’s not entirely off base.
But it is problematic. So we shouldn’t try to become kinder, or better at dealing with difficult people and situations? No one would argue this really, and if they did, it would be patently disingenuous. So we shouldn’t try to find real happiness, or at least understand what happiness itself is?
The idea of things being somehow perfect, as they are, and letting be, can very easily become conflated with a lazy, avoiding attitude, basically an attitude of cowardice. My life is good, and I accept it- therefore I don’t have to face my own neurosis, wash the dishes, find a good job, face the fact that I may be at the center of many of my problems, and take responsibility. When acceptance becomes a way to avoid responsibility for one’s life, it is not doing its job. It needs to get fired. A boss once told me, “you’re letting too much go.”
When do you let too much go? When should you be taking action when you’re just letting it be?
When I heard that self improvement is not the way to go, I knew pretty quickly that this argument was full of holes. Anytime you hear some concept being parroted over and over, know that it is not true. Then the question becomes, what is really true, and what do we do about it?