Personal development is a fairly popular concept these days. And, contrary to what many ‘spiritual’ people say, it’s not just a western thing. Improving oneself and getting better at stuff is a global phenomenon. Perhaps it always has been. But is it a good thing?
One of the ways the Suttas describe the spiritual path is swimming ‘against the stream’. That’s the opposite of ‘going with the flow’. One-pointedness of mind and continuity of purpose are to be cultivated if one is to awaken. Moderation in food and sleep and guarding the senses from over-stimulation are all highly traditional – self discipline in pursuit of personal development.
On the other hand, we also have ‘letting go’ as a key Buddhist concept. Trying to become superman out of craving for the realisation of some self image is born of delusion – at least from a Buddhist perspective. Where are we trying to get to anyway?
This can all be pretty confusing. And there’s no easy answer. Certainly pushing yourself to meditate a gazillion hours a day and not eating after noon is not necessarily the way to happiness. I know several people who’ve tried it. I don’t know anyone who’s still doing it. They generally realise that what motivated them to attempt this was not wholly a skilful desire for release from the rounds of rebirth. Usually it’s wrapped up in old favourites:
- wanting to avoid the inevitable suffering that life brings (fear)
- not feeling good enough and wanting to be perfect (low self esteem)
- desire for non-existence (aversion)
- wanting to look cool (grasping at self – sometimes called ‘ego’)
- a craving for life to mean something – and an aversion to looking straight at the apparent abyss (fear again)
Young men filled with testosterone like to conquer difficult things.
The opposite of course, is not trying. Slob mode. Denial of one’s passions, one’s excitement and zest for life. (Even if you can’t feel it right now, it’s there – I promise you). To ignore our desire for forward motion is not healthy either. I’ve met a whole bunch of people like that too.
I’ve been a tryer and a non-tryer. I know both scenes pretty well.
How to find some balance
The inevitable winding path of our life, as we try to find balance – a middle way between hedonism and asceticism, between eternalism and nihilism – is nothing to get worked up about. You’re on it. Might as well enjoy the journey!
But it’s good to know what’s in play in our lives. Why we do what we do and what mode we’re in right now. And it helps if we can find some words to articulate this. Otherwise you get some snippets, but before you know it, the realisations have disappeared back into the ether. Here are some ideas that can help with this:
- talking therapy
- discussing with friends
- going on retreat
- keeping a journal
- travelling, or otherwise getting out of the goldfish bowl of your life
- mindfully watching your life as you get older
Once you know which end of the spectrum you tend towards, or what mode you’re in right now, pay some attention to cultivating the opposite qualities. I don’t mean try to become someone different – how you are right now is fine and you are getting something out of it. I’m just talking about broadening things out a bit.
If you’re lacking oomph, what could you get excited about? What could you feel grateful for? What would you want if you believed you could definitely have it?
Move your body. It will feel weird and alien at first if that’s not what you’ve identified with up to now, but give it a go. Do some exercise – something that seems like it might be a bit of fun.
And if you’re a goal-orientated, driven human being who can’t sit still and you think everything REALLY MATTERS, consider a beach holiday. Go for a walk in nature – with no knowledge of how far you’re going to walk or how long it’s supposed to take. Just wander. Meditate – and let the meditation be about receiving yourself and relaxing into yourself. Don’t try to achieve a particular mental or emotional state – just listen to what’s there and whatever it is, let it be there. And even if you can’t manage that, don’t try so hard! It’s fine!!!