Should You Improve Yourself Or Drop Yourself? – The Terrible Dilemma Between Self-improvement and Self-Realization

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self-improvement and self-realization

You don’t want to give up this identity because it has a nice side. It’s just that you want to get rid of the not-nice side and just be a very good ego basically. It is true. For everybody it is like that. It is what keeps the game going because you still feel “I’m still this person you know, but I’m improving you know, I read so many self-improvement books. I’m getting there. I’m getting there.” And must people go “well done darling, very good”. Then someone tells you “but this person does not exist.” What?!? – Mooji

Before you read this article I highly recommend you to read my article What is the Ego? as well as my series of articles on spiritual enlightenment.

As you pursue your personal development journey, you may reach a point when you start to question whether personal development is actually necessary. You may start wondering: “Why do I have to work so hard, trying to achieve more and more and never feeling satisfied?” or “Why do I always feel like I’m never good enough?”

During the past few months the following question has been haunting me: should I focus on self-improvement or should I focus on self-realization? And can I do both?

In this article, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts regarding that topic. Let’s start by briefly defining self-improvement and self-realization so that we are clear on the differences between the two. Then, we can talk about whether it is possible to reconcile both.

What is Self-Improvement?

When I started my blog and decided to call it “Whatispersonaldevelopment” I had no idea that “What is personal development?” would become a question I would ask myself very seriously.

I was super pumped up and firmly decided to become the best version of myself and to accomplish as many things as I possibly could during my time on this planet. Personal development seemed like a very powerful thing.

However, as I started looking closely at every single of my accomplishments, at every time I got something “more”, I realized that it had very little impact on my level of happiness. It seems like the problem wasn’t that I needed more, it was that I needed to realize that I already had everything I needed. If I were to solve all my issues before finally being happy and live the perfect life, it would take me many lifetimes!

More importantly, I realized that my level of fulfillment in life had never really changed over time and thus I saw no reason to believe that getting everything I ever wanted would make me supremely happy (at least). Have you noticed how quickly we stop appreciating things? We get used to things very quickly and after a brief moment of happiness we are back just where we were.  We often say that happiness comes from within. If you look closely enough without getting distracted by all the pleasures of life you will realize how true it is.

Self-improvement is about improving oneself to become a better person. Currently, we all have a certain image of ourselves we are clinging to. What we are trying to do with self-improvement for the most part is to improve that self-image. You may also call it identity or person. What is that self-image about?

Let’s try to give a definition of what self-image is:  “Self-image is the result of a story based on our personal interpretation of past memories”. What it means is that our self-image can only be from the past. Since we have no power to actually change the past to modify our self-image, self-improvement is simply about reinterpreting our past, changing our current beliefs for more empowering one and adopting new behaviors that will reinforce that new image.

There is nothing wrong about improving our self-image, and it is certainly better to believe in yourself and have a positive mindset than to be totally depressed. However, we may notice some logical flaws.

We mentioned that self-image can only be from the past, and we know that the past does not exist anymore, therefore our self-image has no tangible reality. If our self-image does not exist, why do we need to improve it? Make sense no?

That is what self-realization is pointing at.

What is Self-Realization?

To be, you must be nobody. To think yourself to be something or somebody is death and hell. – Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

I can’t remember what got me interested in self-realization in the first place. Of course, as everyone else I had heard about the Buddha’s story many years ago but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I’m not going to spend much time explaining what self-realization (or spiritual enlightenment) is in this article as you can read more about it in my series of articles dedicated on spiritual enlightenment.

Put it simply, self-realization is the realization that the person you think you are does not exist! It is realizing through direct experience that you are neither your body nor your mind and that everything you think you are is just a belief. What you are is simply awareness, and for some reason, awareness believes itself to be a person.

A good analogy would be the following: you are the screen onto which the movie (what you call your life) is projected, but you imagine yourself to be in the movie. A screen cannot be affected by the movie. So is awareness.

Recently, some scientists start seriously to believe that we may be living in a virtual reality. It is in fact quite close from what sages have been telling us for thousands of year.

Sages describe awareness as timeless, spaceless and shapeless. It is beyond any concept of the mind. Awareness doesn’t need to be good enough, it doesn’t need to be confident, happy, successful or famous. All those concepts are coming from the mind and mean absolutely nothing to awareness. Awareness is beyond all of that. People who rest in awareness experience unfading joy and peace which are the natural characteristics of what we really are: awareness.

Are Self-Improvement and Self-Realization Contradictory?

Person development is about becoming a better person, but if I’ve never really been a person in the first place, isn’t doing personal development simply keeping the illusion alive? Can I work hard on myself and at the same time work hard on realizing that I don’t exist? It sounds quite contradictory, doesn’t it?

Let me give you some examples of how the worldview of enlightened beings significantly differs from that of personal development gurus.

  1. Enlightened beings tell me to drop all desires; personal development gurus tell me to visualize every day what I want as vividly as possible.
  2. Enlightened beings tell me to forget about the past and the future and to focus on the present moment as it is the only thing that is real; personal development gurus tell me to change my personal story (past), and envision myself being already where I want to be (future).
  3. Enlightened beings  tell me that I don’t need any purpose in life and that the only thing I need is to realize the beauty of just being. What needs to happen will happen after I realized my true nature; personal development gurus tell me that I MUST find my life purpose.
  4. Enlightened beings tell me that setting goals is not necessary; Personal development gurus tell me that I need to set goals to help me achieve my dreams.
  5. Enlightened beings tell me that lasting happiness is my natural state and that I just need to realize it; personal development gurus tell me I need to accomplish more, become more and keep growing in order to be happy.
  6. Enlightened beings tell me to wake up and realize that there is no problem in life. All problems come from the belief that I’m a person to whom these problems happen. When that person is seen for what it is: an illusion, there is no more problem; personal development gurus tell me to improve as a person in order to get better at solving my problems.
  7. Enlightened beings tell me to burn the manual “How to Live”. There is no need to learn how to be happy, how to love or how to live. All these things come naturally when we realize our true nature; personal development gurus are expert in telling me how to live, how to love, how to be more productive, how to be happier etc.
  8. Enlightened beings tell me to observe my thoughts and emotions with detachment and come to the realization that they have no power on me and aren’t defining me; personal development gurus tell me that I should control my thoughts and my emotions to create a better life, as thoughts and emotions create my reality.
  9. Enlightened beings tell me that pleasure and pain are the same thing and that looking for more pleasure will create more pain in my life. Pleasure and pain simply reinforce the sense of being a person; personal development gurus tell me that pain is necessary sometimes to obtain pleasure and that I should seek more pleasure and experiences in life.

Confusing no?

Benefits of Self-Realization and Self-Improvement

So now we have a better understanding of what self-improvement and self-realization are, but what do we do with that?

Obviously we can decide that self-realization is bullshit and forget about it. Similarly, we can decide that self-improvement is an illusion and ignore it.

Let’s look at some potential benefits and possible traps for each case.

Focus on self-improvement only

Potential benefits: if you are dedicated to it, you will probably have a better job, more money, better relationships and so on.

Possible traps:

  • Lack of deeper self-reflection and inner work which may lead to limited improvement of your level of happiness regardless of your external success.
  • Big ego that may cause suffering under various forms (pride, greed…)
  • Underlying sense of not being good enough or not being complete

Focus on self-realization only

Potential benefit: If you attain self-realization, lasting happiness and fulfillment; end of problems

Possible traps:

  • Failure to reach enlightenment and limited results in term of the peace of mind achieved
  • Use of self-realization pursuit as a way to escape your fears and neglect your daily responsibilities
  • Inability to see through the countless tricks the mind is playing on you:
    • Doubt on whether spiritual enlightenment is real or not
    • Doubt on whether you are good enough or not
    • Creation of new beliefs/identity like “I’m a spiritual seeker”
    • Fear of losing your identity “what will happen after spiritual enlightenment? Will I get married? Have a job…
    • Etc.

My personal experience

Now let’s look at my personal case.

Self-realization

benefits:

  • Start feeling more detached. I dwell less and less on the past or on things that happened to me during the day. I forget things very quickly and my negative emotions don’t last long.
  • I’m even less attracted to materials things than before and have less needs.
  • I’m more at peace and even more quiet than before. I generally feel less the need to talk especially when I realize that it is coming from my ego.

traps:

  • Tendency to escape from my fears by using self-realization as an excuse.
  • Postponing self-realization opportunities by buying into my mind’s stories. One of them being that I need to go away for 1 or 2 years to focus on self-realization.
  • Reading more and more books and watching more and more videos on self-realization as a way to procrastinate.
  • Believing that I will not have a girlfriend, a wife, or more generally a normal life after self-realization.
  • Doubting on whether self-realization is real or not
  • Getting lost between my desire to live my passion and my desire to attain self-realization. Is my desire to help people coming from my ego or is it real? Should I listen to it or not?

Self-improvement

Benefits:

  • More confident
  • Better at communicating with people
  • Better at controlling my thoughts
  • More positive mindset (adoption of more empowering beliefs…)

traps:

  • Tend to get motivated and want to do more and become the best, but wonder whether it comes from my ego?
  • Feeling that I’m never going to be satisfied

Note that it is not an exhaustive list but just a few things that came to mind.

Are Self-Realization and Self-Improvement Compatible?

Can we focus on both self-realization and self-improvement at the same time? It may be possible if we can find a common ground.

One of the main reasons why we don’t accomplish what we want in life is fear. Imagine what would be possible if you had absolutely no fear at all. Fear generally manifests when our self-image is threatened. For instance you may be afraid to fail because you are worrying about what others are going to think of you. Or maybe, you are wondering what is going to happen to you in the future if you fail at your new business.

While thinking about whether I should focus on self-realization or self-improvement, I realize that I may actually be using self-realization as a way to escape my fears. On other occasion I forget about self-enlightenment (or my mind make me forget about it) and refocus on self-improvement or end up stuck in the middle.

So can we focus on both at the same time? I think that it is not an easy thing to do but that it is possible. In order to do that the solution is to focus genuinely on our fears (See This Magical Question Will Guide You Through Your Entire Life). By asking yourself on a regular basis “Right now, am I really facing my fears or am I just running away from them?” you can both start acting less out of your ego in your self-improvement journey (trying to be good enough, looking for fame…) and prevent yourself from escaping from your fears on your self-realization journey.

“Am I doing this because I want to attain self-realization or am I doing this because I’m trying to escape my fears?” is another question you can ask yourself.

Understanding Your Ego And Destroying Fear

From a self-realization point of view, ego equals fear. (See What is The Ego). Your ego is the result of you believing you are a person and trying to protect your identity at all cost. People who don’t face their fears and reduce their ego may be insanely successful from the society’s point of view but will be inwardly dissatisfied, unhappy or even depressed. That’s why, during our self-improvement and self-realization journey we must focus on getting rid of fears by confronting them or realizing that they are not real. If you think self-realization is bullshit or aren’t willing to work toward it that’s perfectly fine. Just remind yourself to face your fears and you will be fine. Confront your fears from the most evident ones up to the most subtle ones and your true self will be revealed.

So are you getting rid of your fears?

Read also: 

My series of articles on spiritual enlightenment:


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The 5 Commandments of Personal Development

Comments 12

  • If you could see self-achievement as a path that leads you to understand that you are your consciousness; and see self-improvement as a path to develop all other parts of you (mind, body, emotions: the jiva), then both can pursued at the same time. Because they aim at different aspects of you: the consiousness level and the worldly level.

  • Thank you for your comment Mark. Personally I find it very difficult to do both at the same time as trying to realize that you are not a person and improving your “person” appears to me quite contradictory. How to deal with desire, how to know if my behaviour is driven by my ego or not. Those kinds of questions are not easy to answer.

  • I like your explanation and analogy on self-realization. I get your point but I find it hard to believe because I see myself as having a body, that I am inside this body. Am I living in delusion?

    • Thanks for your comment Catherine. Understanding the concept of self-realization is not that difficult intellectually speaking, but understanding it on an experimental level is generally difficult. In the end, we must find out for ourselves whether we are this body or not. It often requires an eagerness for truth, a deep understanding of what the ego is and how it works or sometimes a chronic disatisfaction.

      • Maybe I’ll understand it more later on. I keep reading books about topics of awareness and enlightenment. Hope this helps me understand who I really am.

      • Nice! By the way what books are you reading? Personally, I don’t want to get lost in books so I try to focus on a few people I particularly like and stick to their teachings.

      • My top favorites are: Awareness by Anthony De Mello, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, and The Little Prince. Really mind-opening for me. How about you? What kind of people you follow? I don’t have nearby people whom I can talk with about enlightenment so I read books.

      • I also like Anthony De Mello and Eckhart Tolle’s books. Another book I recommend is “I Am That” by Nisargadatta Maharaj, a classic. I’ve heard a lot about the Peaceful Warrior but never actually read it, but I read The Life You Were Born To Live by the same author. It’s a kind of life purpose book based on your birthday. It’s quite intriguing, but in my case was surprisingly accurate. Doesn’t mean I necessarily believe in it, but I just take what can help me and leave the rest 😉 I enjoy watching Mooji’s vide on Youtube. For sure, not many people talk about enlightenment. It’s a fascinating topic but talking too much about it will simply build your ego :-p

    • Om, namaste, hello Thibaut, thank you for this article. It somehow reflects my current experience of dropping the imaginary ego-person-body I used to identify the Self with, and of dropping even the dropper, for the sake of Being, not this or that, just Being. Dropping ego-person-body identity doesn’t mean fighting or killing it, it means ignoring it, not feeding it with attention, letting the attention rest in the silent, timeless presence of Self. From that point of view, I find there is no space in my heart for personal development and self-improvement, because simply there is nothing to develop or improve, every activity related to life phenomena springs out spontaneously from the Self, the eternal source of inspiration.

      • Hello Yorgos,
        Thanks for your comment. Glad to hear that. Personally, I’m still struggling with many beliefs and my mind is not at peace yet. I’ll keep focusing on my Self 😉

  • Thank you for your book recommendations! I appreciate it. Added on my reading list. 🙂 There’s a film version of the Peaceful Warrior, you might want to check it out. It talks about being at the moment, here and now.

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