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Why Giving Up On Self-Improvement Improves Everything

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There is a paradoxical irony at the heart of the transformative conversation. People are drawn to it because they want to have a more wonderful life, yet the greatest obstacle to really getting what's on offer is to listen through the filter of "how will this make my life more wonderful?"

By way of example, a few year's back a client came to me for a Shifting the Foundations coaching intensive after much to-ing and fro-ing over the cost of both the program and the travel out to Los Angeles to take part. "This had better work", he said to me, half-joking through a half-smile that did little to cover over his anxiety or stress.

For most of the first two days, he argued with me about the relevance and value of most of what I shared with him. The phrase he used most often in his arguments always began "But you see, Michael, that won't work for me because..."

I was puzzled and a bit frustrated, because a) I really wanted him to get what he had come for and b) his arguments for why it wouldn't work for him were compelling. He was in a tight spot with his business, and I knew going in he was struggling with anxiety and health issues. I was also aware we only had a little over a day left together, and I began wondering if he would be the "exception to the rule" - the one person whose life wouldn't be positively impacted by a deeper understanding of the principles behind the human experience.

We decided to take an afternoon break on the second day. He went for a coffee and I spent the time walking the dogs, hoping that it would clear my head and open up the space for some fresh insight into what would make a difference for him. (I was actually hoping the dogs might have some suggestions, as they had been observing our sessions from the floor of my office, but they remained resolutely silent throughout the walk, no doubt encouraging me to find my own answers through continued reflection.)

After ten minutes or so of self-recrimination and self-doubt, my thinking quieted down and I began to enjoy the feeling of my heart beating faster from exertion and the sights and smells of the Santa Monica mountains. Suddenly, a new question came into my head:

Since when was a conversation about the truth behind the human experience supposed to "work"?

Imagine that someone came to earth with no knowledge of how the physical world functioned. Despite the fact that they were continually falling over, being shocked, and getting bent out of shape, they would make their way as best they could. They might even reconcile themselves to the "fact" that "people like them" aren't cut out to thrive on a planet like this, and come to you for advice about how to make the best of things in a world that seemed designed to keep them down.

Now imagine that instead of giving them strategies for "how to succeed in a world where bad things happened to good people", you explained that there are universal forces at play in the physical world, like gravity, electricity, and magnetism. The things that were happening to them weren't random - they were the natural, predictable outcome of interacting with pre-existing forces without any knowledge of what was really going on. Better still, those same forces could be harnessed for good and used in the creation of great beauty and value in the world.

Finally, imagine that person saying "yeah, I can see how some people getting shocked is electricity, but my shocks can't just be electricity - they really, really hurt!" Or "I can see how magnetism would help me if I believed in it, but I've seen too much suffering in my life to believe that magnetism is real."

You wouldn't be swayed by their arguments no matter how hard they fought for them, because you know gravity, electricity, and magnetism are universal forces, operating outside of the realm of personal preference, intention, or opinion.

In the same way, when we talk about Mind, Consciousness, and Thought as the universal building blocks of the human experience, we aren't offering prescriptions for better living. We're pointing people back to the deeper source of wisdom that lies at the heart of every one of us - the truth of life before the creation of the many, many games of making a living.

So if someone is listening for "what to do", they're liable to miss hearing about what's already done. The perfect system is already in place - the GPS of wisdom, the buoyancy of spirit, and the self-correcting nature of our innate mental health are factory presets, a part of our "original grace".

We don't need someone to tell us what to do, or what to think, or how to be. We just need, from time to time, to be pointed back in the direction of home. When we reconnect to the energy and intelligence behind life, our own lives will be taken care of, often with more elegance, grace, and love than we would ever dared to have dreamed possible.

So when I got back from my walk and my client got back from his coffee and the dogs retake their place at our feet, I asked him to listen differently. Instead of listening to improve his life, I asked him to listen for the feeling of truth. And full credit to him, that's exactly what he did.

Fast forward nine months or so and my client was thriving, with a new job in a new part of the world and an amazing sense of resilience, humor, and optimism that seemed to be completely missing when I first sat down with him. When I asked him what had been the difference that made the difference, he said "It was a lot of things, but it was mostly when I gave up on getting anything useful for myself from our sessions and started to look in the direction of what was true for all people everywhere. I really didn't think that would help, but it made all the difference in the world."

He then reminded me of a quote I'd shared with him at one point during our intensive, originally spoken by a 20th century British philosopher with the unlikely pen name of Wei Wu Wei (and featured in my upcoming new book, The Space Within: Finding Your Way Back Home):

"Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do is for yourself -- and there isn't one."

With all my love,
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For more by Michael Neill, click here.