Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Self-Improvement II

Scott Bradley

In the previous post I suggested that there are two fundamental understandings of self-improvement which distinguish the Taoist approach from more popular ones.

The first point of departure we might consider is what is meant by 'self'; what self is it we wish to improve? I think most of us would agree that there is an identity-bound egoic-self which we generally cognitively 'are', and a larger 'true self' which is the substrate (for lack of a better word) from which the former arises. This larger self is our self-conscious being-in-the-world —whatever that may be or not be. Consider a theoretical realized sage; he has transcended egoic-identity and is said to have or be no-self. Yet, he walks, talks, laughs and refers to himself. He dwells in 'true self'.

Our self-improvement has to do with realizing this no-self at the expense of self. I recently quoted Meister Eckhart in this context: "The truth is that the more ourselves we are, the less self is in us." This being the case, our approach to growth is radically different than ordinary self-improvement. Instead of trying "to win friends and influence people", for instance, we wish to be free of what motivates us to wish to do so. Self-improvement becomes self-transcendence.

We know that self is an incredibly wily wabbit. We know that our most sincere efforts at self-transcendence are already co-opted by self. If I can't be a rock star, then a self-less, incredibly spiritual sage will do. After all, we must adapt to circumstances. This may seem extreme, but it is intended to point out a fundamental, near ubiquitous reality however more subtle.

How do we surmount this problem? I honestly don't know. But I have my opinions, of course.

Two courses of action seem to present themselves. The first, which I will call Zennish, goes directly to the root of the problem and rips it out. It might almost be described as mechanical. Through zazen and the mind-cracking of koans, for example, one breaks through to the other side where there is no self. Self-improvement never, in theory at least, enters the equation. Needless to say, wily self is as perfectly comfortable with this endeavor as any other, but it does have the possible advantage that self might go too far and get hoisted on its own petard, sort of speak. Like the show-off dare-devil, it might lose the self it so terribly wants to nurture in putting itself at extreme risk.

Personally, I think this is an essential component in the self-improvement-by-way-of-no-self project. I have my own meditative exercises by which, like zazen, I attempt to do an end-run around the egoic-self.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.


  1. Kill the wabbit...

    Or Wackiki Wabbit (that's me...)

    Sorry, the word verification for this post is "splazoof"...we all need a little splazoofiness now and then. Aloha nui loa!

  2. I have given up on trying to break through to no-self. Every effort I made seemed to end only in my thinking I was improving myself.

    Nowadays, I just try to watch myself so I don't get out of hand.


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