Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Buddhism is not self-improvement

"Damn it," I scolded myself this morning as I was shaving. Yesterday I reminded myself to send out an email and I forgot. "I really need to start remembering things," I muttered, telling myself not to forget again. "Send the email, send the email."

How mindful could I have been if I forgot something that I intentionally reminded myself to remember?

The problem with this approach that it objectifies practice, turning it into a means to and ends, just another task that we expect to get something from.

But I don't practice Buddhism to become a better person. I don't practice to make myself calmer or happier. Buddhism hasn't cured me of any of my anxieties or neuroses; in fact, all practice does is make me more aware of them. If anything, we practice because it's an expression of who we are, and in a very real sense, because once we start doing it, we don't know how to stop.

Once you become attentive to the monkey mind, mindfulness comes naturally. Oh that thought is back. Hello! Sometimes I wish I could just go back to cruising on auto-pilot, take some time off. But there are no vacations in Zen.

Expecting mindfulness to turn me into some kind of mental or spiritual Superman with invincible powers of memory or patience is not only an exercise in futility, but a self-absorbed pursuit of perfection. I can't make myself remember something any more than I can make myself feel happy when I'm not or not angry when I am.

I just finished re-reading Barry Magid's Ending the Pursuit of Happiness (an AWESOME book that every Zen student should read, and I mean EVERY), and Magid reminds us that whatever emotions we don't deal with wind up being repressed. (Magid is a psychoanalyst, in case you were wondering.) Zen students are not an exception to the role of the unconscious. Simply saying that I'm not angry when in fact I am, is not Buddhist practice; its repression.

Buddhism is about becoming whole, which means owning those parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. Becoming one with the entire universe means all of it, including our emotions and thoughts. But instead we think that non-duality means only the good stuff, the spiritual parts, and not those aspects of our lives or mind that we would normally like to cut off. One Mind or Big Mind does not always mean good mind.

Treat everything as a friend, Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for saying. That includes ourselves. Our emotions and shortcomings are no different from any other dharma--empty and impermanent. So why should we treat them any differently? Be kind to all of them.

That's why I like to think of Buddhism as a path of radical acceptance. We accept everything--the car that cuts us off in traffic, our rising anger, and even our own limitations. Like not being able to remember everything.

Because in the end we're not trying to be anything other than what we already are. We're not trying to become anything--invulnerable, immortal, or infallible. Buddhism, despite how pop culture tries to sell it, is not a project in self-improvement. Self-transformation perhaps, but not the kind we normally think of; not one that we can will into being. If anything changes, it's over time, like a rock worn smooth by a river.

So in the future I'll either need to learn how to accept my memory blanks or start leaving myself notes.

Either way, the only thing I need to remember are two words: no gain.

That's shorthand for "Practice is not a form of self-improvement."

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: audreyjm529.


  1. The misconception of self-improvement is a consequence, perhaps, of the consumerist paradigm: the idea that everything is a tool to use to achieve specific, limited ends, and no more.

  2. I agree, which makes it so difficult to shake--because it's virtualy ubiquitous.

  3. Regarding radical acceptance. There is a book on just that topic called...drum roll..."Radical Acceptance: Living life with the Heart of a Buddha." by Tara Brach. Check it out!