The Myth of Self-Improvement

At this time of the year many people make a resolution, which is often short-lived, to embark upon some sort of self-improvement program or to give up some bad habit. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for personal transformation, but there is a right, and a wrong, way to go about it, both in thought, word and deed.

In his book The Wisdom of Insecurity the American spiritual philosopher Alan Watts has this to say about the wrong way to embark upon self-improvement:

'I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good "I" who is going to improve the bad "me." "I," who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward "me," and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently "I" will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make "me" behave so badly.'

The reason the good ‘I’ can’t change the bad ‘I’ is because they are both one and the same. Worse still, both ‘I’s’ are illusory in the sense that they are not what they appear to be. The ‘I’s’ do exist---but only as self-image in our mind. Despite appearances to the contrary, and our own misbelief, these ‘I’s” do not have any separate, independent, discrete and permanent existence from the person each one of us is. The Scottish philosopher David Hume came up with what is known as the ‘bundle theory,’ which postulates that our mind constructs hundreds of waxing and waning selves. None of these selves ever come together as a single unified entity. They are no more than a bundle of thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations. Neuroscience has shown that Hume, along with a considerable number of other eminent philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, was right. (Of course, the historical Buddha said as much some 2,500 years ago.)

Watts explains how the phenomenon of self occurs:

'The notion of a separate thinker, of an "I" distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, "I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart."'

Over time our sense of self hardens, but it is never more than image---self-image---in our mind. And the bottom line is this---‘I’ can’t change ‘me.’ You see, the ‘I’ that wants to stop smoking or drinking is the ‘me’ that wants to keep smoking or drinking. What’s more, all such ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ are in the past. They are all the result of past thinking and past conditioning. They can never result in the attainment of something in the now, let alone the future. When we work and rely upon only our ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s we will never, never succeed in our endeavours. As William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, said, ‘For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’

The only program of self-improvement that has any chance at all of being successful is one where the person that each one of us is makes a decision to invoke the power of own’s own personhood. That power is not of self; it is a ‘power-not-oneself.’ Self can’t change self, for all our mental selves are in and of themselves not only powerless but also contradictory and in opposition to each other. Hence the need to rely upon a power-not-oneself---the power that comes from being a person among persons.

Now, what is a person? Well, the English philosopher P F Strawson wrote much on the subject. Strawson articulated a concept of ‘person’ in respect of which both physical characteristics and states of consciousness can be ascribed to it. Each one of us is a person among persons---a mind-body complex. We are much, much more than those hundreds of little, false selves---all those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’---with which we tend to identify, in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real me,’ that is, the person each one of us is. Only the latter is ontologically real. Personal freedom and real personal transformation come when we get real, that is, when we start to think, act and live from our personhood as a person among persons. We need to get our mind off our ‘selves’ and rise above them if we are to get real. And remember this---there is no human problem that is not common to other persons among persons.

Now, here are the steps involved. You begin by making up your mind and make a decision to do X [X being whatever positive thing you wish to see actualized in your life]. Great power arises from the making of a decision. Then nail that decision up in your mind and don’t look back. A big part of not looking back means that when any thought, feeling, perception or sensation arises that is to the contrary of the doing of X, you proceed to reaffirm and thus strengthen your original decision and resolve to do X by performing some action---the important word is action---that is not only consistent with the doing of X, it will actually help to bring about X. In the words of the American essayist and minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Do the thing and you will have the power.’ The power is in the doing---the power of the person that you are. It’s the ‘act as if’ principle taught by the American philosopher and psychologist William James. He said, ‘If you want a quality [of personhood], act as if you already had it’ [emphasis added]. Now, who must act? You, the person that you are, must act.

For example, if your decision is to give up smoking, and a thought arises that a cigarette would be nice right now, you immediately do something that is consistent with being a non-smoker. For example, you go somewhere, or mix with someone, where smoking is simply out of the question. Forget all about so-called will-power, for there is no such thing. The ‘will’ is simply your ability to make a decision; it has no power in and of itself. We will always do whatever is our strongest want. It’s want-power---fortified with enthusiasm---and not will-power that we need. Another problem with so-called will-power is this---it is simply the imposition of one illusory ‘self’ over another. It’s the old problem all over.

One more thing, motivation is essential for successful personal transformation. Motivation is motive plus action, the latter being the doing of all that is necessary for X to actualize. What is your motive for doing X? (There may, of course, be more than one such motive.) Your motive must relate to you as a person. For example, if you want to give up smoking, your motive may be to be a healthier person or a wealthier person (as smoking is, among other things, damn expensive). Keep your motive upfront in your consciousness. Your motive is your want-power. For all intents and purposes they are one and the same.

Self can’t change self, but the person each one of us is can indeed change---and change for the better---if we want, that is, really want, change more than anything else and are prepared to go to any length to get it.