Advice,  Letters

A Not-Foolproof Plan for Self Improvement

Dear Friends, 

In an advice column a while back, I wrote that “self improvement is required before we start telling others how to improve themselves,” which makes me laugh in retrospect because… have we met? I am far from perfection, and yet, here I am offering advice to the general public as though I knew something. I will only justify myself by saying I only give advice on topics I have personally given serious consideration, and I attempt to give answers that are more than just self-serving ego trash. Aside from that, no one is perfect, and sometimes giving advice is just a friendly way of lifting your neighbor up. After all, we’re all on this journey together even though we’re in different phases. So, while I don’t think you need to be an enlightened guru or yoga master to give advice or guidance to others, it’s important to have a healthy, ongoing practice of awareness cultivation in your own life. That’s why sometimes I take long breaks from writing advice to make sure I’m grounded in my real life. It’s important to at least attempt to live the same lessons we wish others would learn. 

That said, a friend asked in response to that column how one should go about the initial steps of self-improvement. This question spawns many others in my mind — Is there any level of self work that entitles us to give advice to others? Do we have to reach a certain level of self mastery before we can be told by our teachers that we can now teach, as is the case in many spiritual traditions? I would say yes, except that my experience has been rather lacking in teachers of that kind, and meanwhile, many of those public figures we’ve held up as moral authorities around the world prove to be predators, pedophiles, and mass manipulators of the worst kind. So how does one gain any sense of moral authority for oneself? How can an of us guide our own decisions, let alone those of others?

Let me start by saying, This is not a foolproof plan. But I think it’s a reasonable place to start. And of course, there is no such thing as a foolproof plan, which is why the only thing worth having is a reasonable place to start. And also, exactly where you are is always the best place to start. So, the first step to self-improvement is to take a look at where you are and get real about it. Be honest with yourself. Where are you struggling? Where do you feel you’re falling short? What hurts? What are you afraid of? What are you avoiding thinking about? What pitfalls and brick walls to you run into again and again? Where are you most afraid to ask for help? 

I forgot to mention that this work is not for the faint of heart. If you really want to be a better version of yourself, you will have to look at the things in your life that are difficult. The spiritual life is not all about doing hot yoga and meeting your buddies for smoothies after, although that may genuinely support your personal growth. To become better, we have to be honest about the parts of ourselves that we struggle with, and we have to learn to look them in the eye. This takes a very long time. That’s ok. You have permission to take your time, and I encourage you to be gentle with yourself along the way. 

There are lots of tools for personal growth that you can choose from. For example: Therapy, meditation, yoga, martial arts or other practices of self-discipline, reading self-help books, prayer, religious study, and artistic expression — these can all be ways that we tap into part of ourselves that feels connected, plugged in to the universe, perhaps a part of us that’s more fully aware, alive and wise … There’s really no limit to what could be considered spiritual practice when approached with the right mind.

In yoga, there’s a concept of the guru, which I used to really struggle with. There are lots of discussions in the yoga world about whether one needs to have a guru for the spiritual journey. Some people say yes, you really need to have a wise teacher who you can trust to guide you on the path. Some people say no, gurus are just manipulative pseudo-saints who shouldn’t be trusted. One teacher told me that the original guru was the one who taught the ancient seers and sages. Personally, I believe the guru is something more subtle than all that. There is no teacher who is without flaw, and there was no golden age of enlightenment in any culture. Never have humans understood en masse what it means to be alive and to live a good life. Never have we been perfect. Just as we evolved from single-cell organisms to the complicated creatures we are today, our intellectual abilities, our capacity to understand ourselves and our place in the universe, and our grasp of our interconnectedness continue to develop. The guru is not some ancient wise man whose wisdom has been warped over millennia of oral history. Rather, the guru is the light within each of us that continues to search for truth and understanding. The guru is the forward-moving drive of life, which exists in every living being. When you learn to connect to that part of yourself, you gain the ability to trust yourself. The guru is the source of wisdom. It recognizes truth. It rejects toxicity. It is the source of goodness in your soul. Connect with this part of yourself as often as you can. Humble yourself to it. Do not let it be usurped by ego. 

Of course, that’s harder than it sounds, which is why we have teachers. The important thing to remember about teachers is they are still human. Some may seem incomprehensibly wise, even otherworldly, but the best teachers I’ve had are those every day folks I met at low-paying yoga studios or even my high school counselor who first talked to me about meditation. And it’s worth noting that these were not people from whom I would take moral dictation — just people who had some wisdom to share.

Where I grew up, although there were plenty of parochial schools, there were not a lot of spiritual teachers. No one was really handing out the empowering tools of discernment and reflection so much as they were indoctrinating us with a painful, shame-based morality. I was a teenager when I decided I wanted a teacher, even though I couldn’t afford to travel somewhere to study with a great philosopher. So I decided that everyone I met would be my teacher, and I made it my job to look for wisdom in every interaction. This shotgun approach to learning meant I gained a little bit from every person, but I also wasted some time taking in other people’s bullshit in order to evaluate it. In the spirit of fairness or whatever, I spent years listening to nonsense from people who claimed to have moral authority based on lineage, initiation, social status, religious affiliation, or just age. What I learned was that most people who claim to have moral authority are full of it. 

I also learned that the people who are really teaching something worthwhile tend to have a sense of openness and kindness, but also some vulnerability about them. They are flawed, and they struggle. They welcome strangers, they do their best, they listen, and they are honest. When you meet someone like that, pay attention. They have something to offer. 

As I said before, there are countless practices you can use as tools for spiritual growth, but there’s one in particular I think everyone needs, and that’s compassion. Compassion is the spiritual equivalent of water in a desert. Without it, the journey is brutal. Any time you’re aiming to improve, it means you’re going to come up against that which needs improving, and it’s terribly easy to fixate on our failures, so self-compassion is key. And when we think we’ve made a little progress, it’s equally easy to look at others disdainfully, like “Oh, she needs to go to therapy. She’s clearly got issues…” In that moment, we’re not acting like the evolved beings we hope to be because our lack of compassion for others is rooted in our own insecurity — the need to see ourselves as better because we did go to therapy and we are working on our issues. So compassion comes in the form of saying instead, “Wow, she’s really suffering. I’ve felt that, too. I hope she gets help. Maybe I can help.” Compassion is a balm for the heart. It helps us to soothe the aches of life and continue on our journey. You can bring compassion into your daily interactions, your meditation, and your work. This is a way of letting the world be your teacher and offering something back at the same time. 

Generally, I recommend meditation to anyone who wants to start working on themselves, but lots of newcomers to meditation find it maddening to just sit quietly and observe their own thoughts. Choose a practice that’s easier, then. Go for a hike, gaze at nature, chant something positive, or just mindfully pet a cat for a few minutes. Whatever it is, do it every day. Just start where you are. As far as I know, there’s no end to the journey so don’t worry about getting there. Just practice.