Self-Improvement Projects


“Spiritual maturity is being ready to let go of everything.
Giving up is a first step, but real giving-up is the insight
that there’s nothing to be given up.”

~ Nisargadatta

When most of us embark on our idea of a “spiritual” path, we invariably tend to turn it into a kind of self-improvement project. We say, “Well, there is Buddha, Christ, Krishna, hovering in enlightened bliss, and then there’s this messed up little critter — me. I have a lot of work to do!”

Based on such typical assessments, the comparative mind projects a formidable chasm between the shining legendary characters on one end of the spectrum, and this miserable, endarkened ego on the other end, and consequently becomes attracted to hopeful strategies and promising formulae that would bridge that gap and propel us to a similar exalted status as those idealized figures in the holy stories that religion regularly offers us.

This project entails a classic struggle – an internal battle to transform oneself and become holy, free, happy, fulfilled, better. In identification with all that appears undesirable about our self, we feel weighed down by the burden of our “sins”, and come to believe that, if we could only rid ourselves of these faults through prescribed practices such as prayer, meditation, fasting, study, pilgrimage, celibacy, chant, and close proximity to “higher” beings, we could be happy, realized, saved, loved, liberated.

In reality, this scheme doesn’t work. The mind cannot be used to free itself from itself, despite monumental efforts. Sometimes those efforts may be necessary to realize the utter futility of any effort, but regardless, sooner or later it will become obvious that all the efforts will always fail to achieve the desired result.

There is, of course, a good reason that they do not work. When we try to pin it down, the very self that was believed in need of salvation, awakening, and enlightenment, cannot actually be found. Why raise your voice to try and stop an echo? All along, we’ve been trying to modify a phantom, a completely fictional character, composed of bundles of thoughts and memories, but with no inherent and enduring substance. Sri Nisargadatta sums this up succinctly:

“Think for a moment: who is thinking in terms of transformation, changing from one state to another; in terms of self-improvement? Surely, it is nothing other than an appearance in consciousness, a character in a movie, an individual in a dream — a dreamed pseudo-entity considering itself subject to the workings of Karma. How could such a dreamed character ‘perfect’ itself into anything other than its dreamed self? How could a shadow perfect itself into its substance? How could there be any ‘awakening’ from the dream, except for the dreamer to re-solve the true identity of the source of the dream, the manifestation?”

If we take up various “spiritual” techniques, methods, or remedial schemes based on the notion of improving this self (as me), we merely become more entangled in the narrative of the “me-story”. Any effort, mental or physical, only reinforces the illusion that this self can become enlightened. It can’t. It is a thought-complex arising and dissolving in the limitless ocean of Awareness.

That fictitious entity we believe ourselves to be when we assume the role of “aspirant” does not somehow perform certain practices successfully enough to finally arrive at Awareness. Nothing leads to Awareness. Since we are already Awareness, to what can we be led? Nothing needs to be changed or improved in Awareness, which is already and always perfect as it is.

As the great Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Chah, suggests: “Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing.”

In the course of turning our attention to its root, and simply being aware of being aware, rather than chasing after any mere modifications of consciousness, what may occur is a sudden flash of insight that has nothing to do with the conceptual mind or separate self-sense. Our true nature, the aware space in which all thoughts, emotions, memories, and self-images appear and disappear, suddenly “wakes up” to Itself.

What is critical to understand here is that the “me” does not suddenly have a realization. In fact, that conceptual designation is what disappears in the midst of true re-cognition. This revelatory flash of true identity is completely beyond the claims of “me and mine”. In such Awakening, all of the self-improvement projects are rendered utterly pointless, since the one we have taken ourselves to be — the “seeker” — drops away in that moment of Seeing.

self improvement

When the implications of this Recognition finally sink in, the whole momentum of the struggle begins to collapse in on itself, and what we are left with is a kind of natural acceptance. When we are no longer committed to a war with it, we find that we can accept this life, just as it is, and in that forgiving acceptance, come to welcome whatever appears without compulsive grasping, clinging, or avoidance.

The contemporary American teacher Adyashanti spoke to the issue of futile self-improvement struggles when he wrote:

“All of your life you have been taught to do, to strive, to effort. You have been sold a self-improvement plan. You have been conditioned to believe that you are the body and the mind. All of this is a reflection of ignorance. It has been the blind leading the blind. The truth of your being is openness. It needs no practice, technique or manipulation to realize. Who you are is free, now! Who you are will not become free or liberated at some point in the future; who you are is liberated, now! Stop all doing and be still. Let the fire of stillness burn everything and reveal That which is openness.”

In such openness, we gradually notice that everyone and everything is included in this welcoming embrace — not based upon an ideal of love, but anchored in the very clear recognition that loving is the only possible response to life that truly satisfies the heart and returns us to the peace that is our natural and native condition, prior to the adventure of seeking.

We can surrender trying to be “knowers” (and the fear that not knowing once implied), without imagining ourselves to be some problem in need of a final solution, and without the guilt-filled need of purification, restoration, re-distribution, or transmigration to a superior metaphysical plane. In fact, despite our warts and bumps and goofs, we can be happy.

When we are happy, Buddha is happy, Christ is happy. Our happiness is no different than theirs. All the sacred scriptures, texts, and philosophies become superfluous — superfluous to our own prior happiness, our own immense heart, in which the whole world is lovingly reflected.

When we come to rest in the slipstream of total insecurity, complete not knowing, then we become a demonstration of that possibility in the midst of the haunted restlessness that humanity shares in common.

Such deep resting transmutes the inner conflict into creative life force – it was the struggle all along that merely distracted and complicated life’s natural flowing energy, dividing itself against itself in futile efforts to grasp itself, to hold on and not let go, even unto death.

The death of that struggle is the birth of Love, unconditional Love. Unconditional because it is not bound by destiny or contrived design, it is free, selfless real Love, submitted to this dying into life without reluctance or regret.

Yes, at last we can face our own death – the death of fixed belief, of idealistic hope, arrogant pride, the death of poisonous reactivity, the death of any identification, any self-image, any perceived or conceived limitation on our infinite nature, and all in order to demonstrate for each other the Principle that is not touched by death, not touched by impermanence.

This is the perfect service we can render to each other — just being what we are. That is enough. It has always been, and will always be, enough.

“Be just what you is, not what you is not.

Folks what do this is the happiest lot.”

~Mr. Wizard


About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
This entry was posted in Consciousness, Enlightenment, Nonduality, Spiritual Practice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Self-Improvement Projects

  1. Christopher says:

    Really excellent…!!! Thank you Bob.

    • “The Way is basically perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent upon practice and realization? The Dharma-vehicle is free and untrammelled. What need is there for concentrated effort? Indeed, the whole body is far beyond the world’s dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from one, right where one is. What is the use of going off here and there to practice?”

      ~Dogen Zenji

  2. beckybackert says:

    Thank you for making my heart soar in recognition of the journey. Namaste.

  3. huynhqueanh says:


  4. marcel says:

    Happy New Thingy Sir!
    Hugs to Amos and Mazie

  5. So clear and refreshing, my Heart!

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    “But if I had to put my finger on the primary obstacle, I would say it is having wrong views of the journey. Paradoxical though it may seem, the passage through consciousness or self moves contrary to self, rubs it the wrong way – and in the end, will even rub it out.”

    ~Bernadette Roberts

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “It is easy to imagine that the Buddha, the awakened one, is something or somewhere other than here or that awakening to reality will happen sometime other than now. But as long as we continue to think in terms of time we will deceive ourselves. The you who is chasing enlightenment will never become enlightened.
    Instead of striving towards some distant goal that you will never reach, I invite you to stop and ask: How am I avoiding the enlightenment that is already present in each moment? How am I seeing separation where it doesn’t exist?”


  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves–the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds–never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.”

    ~Pema Chodron

  9. Bob OHearn says:

    Baso (Ma-tsu) was sitting in formal zazen posture, when Nangaku took a tile and sat on the rock facing him, rubbing it.
    Baso asked, ‘What are you doing?’
    Nangaku said, ‘I’m rubbing the tile to make it a mirror.’
    Baso said, ‘How can you make a mirror by rubbing a tile?’
    Nangaku said, ‘If I can’t make a mirror by rubbing a tile, how can you achieve buddhahood by sitting in meditation?”

  10. Bob OHearn says:


    If only people freed themselves from their beliefs in all kinds of Devatas, God, Allah, Yahweh and their incarnations as Krishnas and Christs, from beliefs in paradises and hells, in reincarnations and resurrections, from belief in the interference of the Gods in the external affairs of the universe,

    and above all, if they freed themselves from belief in the infallibility of all the various Vedas, Bibles, Gospels, Tripitakas, Korans, and the like,

    and also freed themselves from blind belief in a variety of scientific teachings about infinitely small atoms and molecules and in all the infinitely great and infinitely remote worlds, their movements and origin, as well as from faith in the infallibility of the scientific law to which humanity is at present subjected:

    the historic law, the economic laws, the law of struggle and survival, and so of, If people only freed themselves from this terrible accumulation of futile exercises of our lower capacities of mind and memory called the ‘sciences’, and from the innumerable divisions of all sorts of histories, anthropologies, homiletics, bacteriologics, jurisprudences, cosmographies, strategies—their name is legion

    —and freed themselves from all this harmful, stupifying ballast—

    the simple law of love, natural to man, accessible to all and solving all questions and perplexities, would of itself become clear and obligatory.

    – Leo Tolstoy in ‘A Letter to a Hindu’ (1908)

  11. Bob OHearn says:

    “The everyday practice . . . is just everyday life itself. Since the undeveloped state does not exist, there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond what you actually are. There should be no feeling of striving to reach some “amazing goal” or “advanced state”. To strive for such a state is a neurosis which only conditions us and serves to obstruct the free flow of Mind. We should also avoid thinking of ourselves as worthless persons – we are naturally free and unconditioned. We are intrinsically enlightened and lack nothing.”

    ~ Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

  12. Bob OHearn says:

    “We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are without trying to become greater, purer, more spiritual, more insightful. If we can accept our imperfections as they are, quite ordinarily, then we can use them as part of the Path. But if we try to get rid of our imperfections, then they will be enemies, obstacles on the road to our ‘self-improvement’.”

    ~ Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

  13. Bob OHearn says:

    “Many people try to become wiser and more loving, and they remain in a constant battle with themselves. This approach never works because it assumes a separate ‘you’ who wants to be a better person. It is the you that is the dream, a thought only. In taking yourself to be a separate entity, you blind yourself to the Truth of your being, which is love and wisdom.”

    ~ Adyashanti

  14. Bob OHearn says:

    “You ask: ‘How am I to get out of my own way?’ If I showed you a system it would turn into another form of self-improvement. We find this problem throughout the entire history of spirituality. It is only as getting out of your way ceases to be a matter of choice, when you see that there is nothing else for you to do.”

    ~Alan Watts

  15. Pingback: The Conscious Process – Bob O’Hearn | Creative by Nature

  16. Bob OHearn says:

    “We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves, the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds – never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.”

    ~ Pema Chödrön

  17. Bob OHearn says:

    Your effort is the bondage.

    ~Ramana Maharshi

  18. Bob OHearn says:

    “The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness and shut-downiness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, then we would be happy. This is the innocent, naive misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy.”

    ~ Pema Chodron

  19. Bob OHearn says:

    “People perform a vast number of complex practices hoping to gain spiritual merit as countless as the grains of sand on the riverbed of the Ganges: but you are essentially already perfect in every way.

    Don’t try and augment perfection with meaningless practice. If it’s the right occasion to perform them, let practices happen. When the time has passed, let them stop.

    If you are not absolutely sure that mind is the Buddha, and if you are attached to the ideas of winning merit from spiritual practices, then your thinking is misguided and not in harmony with the Way.

    To practice complex spiritual practices is to progress step by step: but the eternal Buddha is not a Buddha of progressive stages.

    Just awaken to the one Mind, and there is absolutely nothing to be attained.

    This is the real Buddha.”

    ~Huang Po

  20. Judy says:

    Dear Bob, so many wonderful writings that bring one back to Reality. This one just lifted me back from thinking too much again! Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.