Thirty years ago, I went to see a very old and highly revered Chinese doctor. One of the first things he said to me was, "I don't deal with disease; I deal with health."
In Western culture, self-help is often talked about as though it offers cures to what is inherently wrong with you. But if we take a cue from the Eastern approach, we can more effectively deal with our physical, psychological, and spiritual health.
The essence of true self-improvement relates to homeostasis, the Self-regulating process by which we tend to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions in the most life supporting way. This Self-regulation is the source of true health. Everyone knows that if you cut your finger, an inner homeostatic intelligence heals the cut. Our job is to simply facilitate the process by keeping the cut clean and protected.
Conventional approaches to self-help certainly have their value. However, where they fall short is in not sufficiently appreciating that the same homeostatic processes apply to personal and spiritual growth. Instead they tend to focus on fixing external factors, which do not get to the root of the problem.
The Bible reminds us that the "the Kingdom of Heaven dwells within." In other words, our inner essence is Divine. Humans have evolved to the point where we are able to be conscious on multiple levels of existence, from the physical to the psychoenergetic all the way to the Transcendental level. Personal improvement then is about facilitating the emergence of our Divine essence (our Self) so that it permeates and integrates all levels of our life.
Let's first take a look at some of the conventional approaches to self-improvement, and why they may be holding us back from happiness:
1. Preconceived notions
We all have preconceived notions of what the better and happier version of ourselves will look like. We strive to conform to those notions in the name of personal development. The problem with those notions is they are not at all based upon who we truly are deep inside. They are essentially a mirage, an unreachable star. Even if we do conform to them to some degree, we're contorting ourselves, not freeing ourselves to live our natural state. Or as Swami Muktananda put it: "If you spend your life on self-improvement, all you have to show for it at the end of your life is an improved self."
The self-help section of every bookstore is full of models of what people should be like when they are self-improved. They come complete with inspirational one-liners that fans throw back and forth among themselves as they collude around their idealized model. Self-improvement, however, is not about turning an apple into an orange. It's about becoming a better apple.
A common approach to self-help is to try to purge any stresses, strains, or tensions in the psyche. For example, if we are mad at our father, we may punch a pillow. Catharsis does have some value in releasing that pressure valve. It brings some stress release and the physical aspects of catharsis can lead to feeling better. However, studies have shown that catharsis is not what heals psychological problems. In fact, the practice reinforces negative pathways in the psyche.
So what are the characteristics of a more effective approach to self-improvement?
Happiness Through Self-understanding
1. You Are Already Fine
First of all, don't lose sight of the fact that deep inside, you are already fine. Self-improvement is about bringing that out to the surface. Just as the cut heals itself from the inside out, and not from the Band-Aid you stick on it, our psychophysiology has everything it needs to bring us equilibrium health.
2. Let Yourself Be Natural
While a lot of self-help methods try to control our behavior and thoughts, true personal development is about becoming more natural. Oftentimes therapy sessions or self-help books assist us in seeing how we have been behaving in an unhealthy or unnatural manner. However, the tendency is to ask, "Now that I see what I've been doing, what do I do about it?" The therapist or author then suggests a behavioral modification. But the best answer is: "The exploration is the doing. The healing then just follows naturally."
Simply by exploring the feelings that are coming up, and holding them to the light of day without judgment, we can relieve tension and bring about self-understanding. The healing is thereby quite naturally facilitated. When the issue is adequately explored, its relationship to the inner Divinity and purity of heart is understood, which can bring about profound healing. So, the exploration is not about figuring out how we are messed up. Rather, it is more about the dance we are doing around our own Divinity and where we get lost or spin out during that process.
3. Lift the Shroud on Your Divinity
The fundamental idea then is that the stresses and strains in the physiology shroud our own inherent divine nature. It is the unraveling or purification of those stresses and strains that is the true path to self-improvement. Though some stresses and strains are released during sleep, the rest gained in sleep is not deep enough.
Proper meditation techniques, on the other hand, have been shown to provide significantly deeper rest and therefore over time, release the deepest stresses and strains. In fact, meditation is commonly considered to be the most powerful self-improvement technique. It enhances any other natural approaches that are employed.
The key to effective self-improvement starts with an understanding of the nature of the human physiology and psyche. Rather than manipulating or attacking distortion, self-improvement and happiness are more about facilitating the health that dwells deep within each of us.