Why is self-improvement so difficult? Why is it so difficult to eliminate unwanted behaviors like overeating or smoking?
The answer is important, because it reveals a critical strategy for living better. Understanding and mastering the strategy permits flourishing; ignoring it obstructs important, lasting changes.
The answer is also counter-intuitive. It seems that, because we decide what to do or what not to do, all we should have to do to achieve significant self-improvement is to make better decisions. However, as you probably realize from personal experience, evolving to the next better level seems never to be easy.
There are two self-improvement strategies: the external and the internal. The external focuses on behavior, whereas the internal doesn’t.
It’s natural to begin focusing on the external. Since we want to eliminate a bad behavioral habit, it’s natural to focus on that behavior.
Suppose, for example, that you want to reduce your percentage of body fat. You decide to switch your metabolism from sugar-burning to fat-burning by dramatically cutting your carbohydrate intake. This doesn’t mean eating fewer calories; it means dramatically reducing calories from carbohydrates and replacing them with increased calories from proteins and fats.
It’s easy to begin an external self-improvement strategy. How? Simply measure the grams of carbs you consume each day. Decide on some maximum level and then commit yourself to staying under it.
Suppose that you decide to consume today not more than 30 grams of carbohydrates. As soon as you begin to approach that maximum, whenever you feel hungry it’s a matter of satisfying your hunger with calories from proteins or fats instead of carbohydrates.
You may have tried such a system. It requires commitment, but it can work.
After all, it’s always easier to improve what you can measure than what you cannot measure. Using a food counts book to measure grams of carbohydrates is easy and takes advantage of this fact.
The only thing wrong with such external self-improvement strategies is that, in practice, they don’t work well! In theory, they work fine. In practice, although they can work, they usually don’t.
This is one reason why so many of us wind up yo-yo dieting. Our percentage of body fat rises and falls. It never seems to get sufficiently low and stay there.
This is also one reason why it’s best not to go on diets. Dieting doesn’t work to produce lasting fat loss.
Before you jump to the conclusion that nothing short of surgery can help you, consider the internal self-improvement strategy.
What is it? How could it work?
Have you ever had this happen: you simply find yourself finishing a bag of cookies, a piece of chocolate cake, or a sandwich? You realize that you must have wanted food and, while paying almost no attention to what you were doing, you raided the refrigerator.You became conscious again of what you were doing only after you had consumed some carbohydrates.
It’s as if you went automatically, without even being aware of it, from the desire to the (unwanted) behavior. The attachment to carbohydrates isn’t even noticed. Since, when digested, all carbohydrates become sugar, it’s really a sub-conscious sugar addiction.
Similarly, smokers sometimes just find themselves smoking without having consciously decided to take out and light a cigarette.
The problem is understanding something more important than the unwanted behavior: it’s the inattention that preceded the unwanted behavior.
Inattention is a lack of attention, a lack of “mindfulness.” The bad habit really has become automatic. The urge for sweets or a smoke (or whatever) seems automatically followed by the eating or smoking (or whatever).
Habits are the flywheels of life. Without having developed a lot of them, it would be impossible to accomplish everything that we normally accomplish in a day. In that sense, habits are, overall, very beneficial.
The problem is that some habits, like attachments or addictions to sweets or nicotine, have deleterious consequences. Not wanting the consequences, we try to break the habits in question.
If we use the external strategy of self-improvement, we usually fail and seem stuck.
Freedom is possible. It is possible to break any bad habit. It’s even simple to do so. It’s just that it’s not easy.
All it takes is mindfulness, paying full attention to the present moment. Doing this requires persistent discipline and commitment, which is why almost nobody does it.
The internal strategy of self-improvement, though, is the best way to freedom. All it requires is persistently paying attention. It’s never a matter of forcing yourself to adopt some behavior. If you practice taking control of your focus, your behaviors will naturally improve.
It is not easy to notice our desires (wants, appetites). Again, we sometimes just seem to find ourselves engaged in the unwanted behavior without having chosen it.
Still, sometimes, we do notice it. Suppose, for example, you notice a lack of something or other – and you suddenly remember that there’s one more piece of pie left in the refrigerator. What should you do?
The answer is always the same: pay attention. Forget about doing or not doing. Pay attention to that desire, that peculiar energy field.
Now, and this is the key, keep paying attention. Keep staying with it without distraction.
What you are doing is separating yourself from that desire. You are deliberately creating a space (a gap, a separation). Freedom comes from that space.
This is why Sengcan, the Third Patriarch of Chan [Zen] in ancient China, says, referring to the great Way of living well: “The Way is perfect like vast space, / where there’s no lack and no excess.”
There’s nothing missing in freedom, which is our birthright. Our task is being mindful enough to claim it.
The more you practice this internal strategy for self-improvement, the more free you will become. The idea is to bring “space” into your life as often as possible. (This really means, the way I sometimes talk, bringing Being into Becoming.)
It may be that, after noticing that desire for twenty seconds or three minutes, you decide to eat that piece of pie anyway. No problem. Don’t freak out: the behavior is less important than the awareness!
Sometimes, however, by simply paying attention to a desire, it will actually vanish! Just stay with it for a few minutes as a kind of investigation. Obviously, if it vanishes, then there is no problem about any subsequent behavior.
This explains why many authorities on eating recommend keeping a food diary, literally writing down everything you put in your mouth. You may not even be aware of what you are doing. They want you to improve your attention, your focus, your mindfulness.
That, really, is the critical step. It breaks the otherwise automatic identification between you and your desire. Your desire is, after all, only a thought, and you are infinitely more than your thoughts.
The more “space” you repeatedly bring to each moment, the better you’ll live.
Here’s an extremely important tip: forget the future. Never think something like “I must give up pie for the rest of my life.” Why? The future is nothing but a set of thoughts! It’s only real in imagination. Living always happens now.
Because it’s always impossible ever to do or fail to do anything in the future, your task is, therefore, not to give up sweets for the rest of your life. Desires are only ever now, in the present moment.
Is important, lasting self-improvement possible?
Yes, particularly if you will use the internal strategy for self-improvement.
The underlying difficulty is misusing the mind. There is no greater power than the power of focus. If you will train yourself to focus your mind, always to pay full attention to the present moment, you will regularly begin noticing miracles happening.
Miracles are what happen when life is lived well.
Additional Resources: A Course in Miracles, Eckhart Tolle’s “The Art of Presence” (a 6 CD set), and my The 7 Steps to Mastery.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from this, please forward it.