Self-improvement by not-self-improvement

Years ago, in a difficult period of my life, I had looked for philosophical help and explicitly found it in Buddhism and not Daoism, rejecting Daoism and its sudden-liberation views in about the strongest possible terms. But that wasn’t the whole story.

I had already been trying to apply the four-stage model of skill development, taught to me by Nancy Houfek, in which one progresses from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence. Trying to find a peaceful mind in those difficult days, I was all too conscious of my own incompetence, and Daoism provided no guidance that I could discern on how one could make the all-important step to conscious competence. But it is eight years later now, eight years I have spent working on my mindfulness through a nightly prayer ritual and, increasingly, meditation. I’ve gotten better at stopping my harmful thoughts when I put my mind to it; I think I’ve acquired a certain degree of conscious competence. The next step seems to be making it a habit, making it unconscious competence. And when it comes to that, the Daoists might have a point.

We still have reason to be wary of accepting our harmful emotions. It is all too easy to say “I’m great just the way I am”, in a way that allows one’s bad habits to perpetuate. I believe as much as ever that it’s hugely important to become better and we need to work at it. But there’s a certain point at which that work itself comes to require working less hard. Skholiast has summed up his philosophy as “Philosophy works by not-working.” And while I wouldn’t go that far – in the early stages of self-improvement I think it takes arduous work to put philosophy into practice – there is still a point at which I think that that’s right. The move from conscious to unconscious competence must be a move to a kind of deliberate not-working.

One of the most important lessons of the Disengaged Buddhists, I think, is that we must accept those bad things in the world that we cannot change. This is the lesson I take from the Cakkavatti Sīhanāda Sutta’s view of historical time, where things will get worse before they get better. But there’s a deeper and harder kind of acceptance that we also need, one which twelve years ago) I’d associated with Daoist-influenced Chan Buddhism. That is: sometimes we have to accept the bad things in ourselves too!

I’ve long admired Augustine’s insight into how deep the badness in human nature can go. I think that possibly the greatest danger of an expressive individualist worldview is to say people are totally fine just as they are and don’t need to change; then we stop any self-improvement and are left at the mercy of our worst tendencies. Augustine knows all too well how much is wrong with our everyday state of being, and commits in life to fixing it.

But at some level Augustine winds up too aware of that badness. In the last chapters of the Confessions he frets at length about how, after a lifetime of trying to control his bad impulses, they still show up. His solution is to say that we are ultimately incapable of fixing ourselves, our sin is too great to be addressed by anything but the grace of the son of God. But that solution has its problems even if you believe in Augustine’s God: God’s forgiveness may get you eternal life in the next life, but you’re still stuck as a miserable sinner in this one. And it works even less well if if you do not believe in his God, as I do not.

Like Augustine I don’t think we can achieve human perfection in this life, but unlike Augustine (or Kant or classical Buddhists) I don’t think we get future lives into which we can put off that perfection. There are amazing exemplars of virtue, like Thich Quang Duc, but I imagine that even he experienced regular pangs of fear, shame, anger, jealousy. Those negative emotions, those kleśas, are very hard to control, and perhaps even impossible to eradicate. They are always dangerous, not just for the bad actions they lead us to, but for the suffering that they cause us directly, tearing us up inside. But – the crucial part – we can make that suffering a lot worse by fighting and resisting the emotions.

This is a lesson I don’t think Augustine handles well. His work is full of hand-wringing at the bad mental states he has tried and failed to eradicate – and it doesn’t seem to me that the hand-wringing helps. Sure, we should try and fix what we can – but given that we can’t perfect ourselves, as Augustine agrees, could we not just accept that being imperfect is okay? It seems to me that by virtue of wanting to improve himself more, Augustine improves himself less – by adding an additional layer of craving and fretting that doesn’t need to be there.

Here there is a tremendous value in those modern mindfulness meditation traditions that John Dunne calls “nondual” (whether or not the word “nondual” is the best choice to describe them) – traditions that would look odd in Śāntideva’s Indian context but make more sense in Daoist-influenced East Asia. One of the major features that set “nondual” meditation traditions (like Chan/Zen 禪) apart from classical traditions (like Śāntideva’s) is their non-judgemental character: you just observe your mental states going by; unlike Śāntideva, you don’t actively try to get rid of them. You notice both helpful and unhelpful mental states, and let them come and go. And in my experience of doing this, at least, it turns out that for Śāntideva’s goal of having fewer unhelpful states, this is actually more effective than actively fighting them. In the words of the Tibetan Wangchug Dorje:

Some say that one should deliberately suppress thoughts to be abandoned, but if one does so, then it will just increase conceptuality and it will be difficult for concentration (samādhi) to arise. Therefore, whatever thought arises, one should not see the thought as a fault, one should just let it go and intently settle on the thought itself. (quoted in Dunne 265)

There’s a certain point at which the self-improvement we need is a self-improvement-by-not-self-improvement – to make ourselves better by accepting ourselves as we are, with our flaws. It’s a paradox, but a true one: one of the ways to make oneself better is to accept the ways one has not (yet, at least) made oneself better. We need a discernment of what we can and can’t change in ourselves, and be at peace with the latter. The Serenity Prayer applies within ourselves as well as to the rest of the world.

The central paradox is this: It remains essential to a good human life that one strive to improve oneself. But one of the most important improvements, virtues, is itself to be more accepting of intractable imperfections – not only in the world outside oneself, but within oneself too.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

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