Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Self-Improvement I

Scott Bradley

The concept of self-improvement generally has a negative connotation in the context of the traditions to which most of us who frequent this blog loosely identify. I hesitate to describe that school of thought because most of us are not strictly speaking fully committed to any one tradition. I certainly am not. Thus, while I feel a great sympathy for Zen, for instance, and adopt many of the sensibilities I find there, I doubt that any true Zen practitioner would find me in harmony with the fundamentals of Zen, an opinion to which I concur.

"Philosophical Taoism" is a blanket term with which I am largely comfortable, but I know there are some of you who take exception to this implied distinction from the larger body of Taoist thought. All this being the case, it is not always easy to imagine an "us" to which to refer. Thus when I do so, I try and remember we are an amorphous lot. So much for the preamble.

Alan Watts, in his The Way of Zen, made a point of saying that Zen is by no means a path of self-improvement. It is not a project whereby one tries to become a better person. Indeed, such an effort would be a hindrance to the true goal of complete transcendence of any such concerns. Yet, objectively speaking, the net result is a much 'better' person — a person in harmony with both herself and the world.

Philosophical Taoism shares this point of view. True virtue (te/de) arises spontaneously from the heart, unmediated by any deliberation, intellectual, moral or practical. Wu wei, not-doing, is this spontaneous doing. The doing of self-improvement is thus a form of cultivation precisely the opposite of philosophical Taoism's goal. And this is where it most conflicted with Confucianism, which is essentially a grand project of active self-improvement. Syncretist that I am, I think they can compliment each other.

Speaking for my own path, I have to say it most definitely is, in many respects, a path of self-improvement. I think it would be disingenuous to say otherwise. And I think this is also true of Zen and philosophical Taoism. The true distinction between this desire for 'growth' and that of Dale Carnegie, pop psychology, or (to be frank) what we are most likely doing, has to do with our fundamental points of departure.

These are, I believe, essentially two. The first concerns the nature of the ‘self’ we wish to improve. We recognize an alternative way of being a self, a no-self, and this is something altogether different than the egoic-self of identity. There are two very different but parallel approaches to realizing this self-improvement through no-self, and I will discuss these in the following posts.

The second point of departure for our journey of self-improvement is the realization that it is already what we are. We are not required to redeem ourselves, but only have the opportunity of experiencing more fully what we already are.

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


  1. I'm not sure if I'm agreeing or disagreeing here, or both, or neither, but the term I usually use, and hear, in connection with Taoism (jia or jiao) is self-CULTIVATION, which suggests what you do in a garden. Not modifying or "improving" plants (those are the GMO folks, the geneticists), but just doing things to help it flourish and reach its full potential, to blossom, to bear fruit and seed. You don't just let the garden go (although I have done that and had a bountiful harvest, but the garden was full of snakes and weeds, a mess); you hoe, prune, fertilize. And in the next year the garden is even better.

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