“Oh, God. Another ‘self-improvement’ article…” You’d be forgiven if these words come out of your mouth.
Because many – if not most – self-improvement articles proclaim to know “the way”: to more productivity, better performance, and happier life.
And what do we get in return? The same empty platitudes seem aimed toward fulfilling a word count rather than instructing, guiding, and encouraging.
So, please be forewarned: if you seek the latest, “trendiest” self-help hack or shortcut, this article isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for time-tested words of wisdom and a legitimate self-improvement framework, you’ve come to the right place.
Without further ado, here are the four cornerstones of self-improvement.
Cornerstone #1: Relaxed Discipline
“Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences.” – Dr. Dan Siegel, ‘The Whole-Brained Child”
We’ve somehow acquired the mindset to improve means that we must go to war with ourselves. While self-discipline is undoubtedly one aspect of higher wisdom, it’s not, can’t, and shouldn’t be the product of the ego-driven, restless mind.
To learn relaxed self-discipline, we must first learn to (that’s right) relax. It sounds super easy, but this right kind of relaxation is a skill that must be cultivated.
Because since childhood, we’ve learned that to discipline oneself involves austerity, punishment, and, yes, physical tension. Tell a child to pay attention and class, and one of the first things they’ll do is tense up their muscles and furrow their eyebrows and forehead.
That’s not discipline – it’s seizing up. And we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that’s okay. It’s not. It’s an idiotic way of teaching discipline, especially to vulnerable children.
What does a relaxed form of discipline look like?
Internally, it’s a sense of dynamic equilibrium. If you make a mistake, you don’t scold yourself for it. Gently bring your attention to the task and, maintaining a sense of calm, give the job your full focus. Forget to do something? No problem! Relax your shoulders, breathe out, and think about your next steps.
Externally, others can see a noticeable sense of ease and “flow” in all daily activities. People can see your outer calm, and this, in turn, contributes to their sense of tranquility. You’re bringing something of inestimable value to the world.
What does relaxed discipline not look like? First and foremost, relaxed discipline isn’t an excuse. Nor is it something you do part of the time. It’s an approach to life – an ethos. Like any meaningful endeavor, it requires commitment and continuity. Speaking of which…
Cornerstone #2: Familiarization and Habituation
“Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.” ~Chinese King Tching-thang, as cited by Henry David Thoreau in “Walden”
Unless you’re some sort of enlightened being, automaticity will continue to guide much of what you do. Hence, the importance of becoming familiar with, setting and acquiring healthy habits.
So why not just say, “Build new habits”? Because it’s too abrupt, opaque, and, yes, intimidating. Habits are hard things to get, after all. One doesn’t just “get” a new habit. There’s a growth process – and because of our misinformed approach to self-discipline, it’s too often riddled with unnecessary tension, strain, and self-doubt.
So, in keeping in line with our relaxed, disciplined approach, we’re going to discuss habits differently.
Familiarization includes implementing the habit – and continually reinforcing the habit as wholesome. This means that we remain mindful (attentive) to the growth that comes from the process of habit formation. Then, once the habit is formed, remaining conscious of the benefits.
Let’s contextualize this a bit, as familiarization can be confusing. Let’s talk about weight loss for a minute.
People lose weight to feel better about themselves. They’re tired of being fat and decide to do something about it.
Most people fail. By one count, as many as 98 percent quit. Of the people that do lose weight, around 90 percent gain the weight back within a couple of years.
A lack of attentiveness to the process causes both. People make one wrong choice, which leads to another, and another. They don’t remain familiar with how weight loss feels, its benefits, or the repercussions of keeping weight on – or failing to keep it off.
As a result, the desire to maintain the habit wears off, something that psychologists call normalization. We just become “used to” being a certain way, having certain things, etc. It becomes no big deal. (Normalization, by the way, is one big reason why “money can’t buy happiness.”)
We start to take things for granted, even those we’ve worked so hard to achieve. When this happens, we risk losing those things.
As such, we must, as Henry David Thoreau cites in ‘Walden,’ “Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again.” One way to do this is through gratitude practice.
Don’t forget the process, results, and benefits of your actions.
Cornerstone #3: Attention and Concentration
“The education of attention would be an education par excellence.” ~William James, the “Father” of modern psychology
It’s not hyperbolic to state that concentration is the most valuable asset you have as a human being. The ability to direct and hold your focus lies at the heart of most endeavors – including any type of training. This includes, of course, any and all efforts at self-improvement.
But first, we must face the uncomfortable truth: for most of us, our attention span sucks.
There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest culprit is convenience. We’ve gotten used to having things – and quickly. We can order a product from across the country and have it on our doorstep within a day.
Impatience is the antithesis of calm, stable attention.
Another culprit: too many stimuli.
From every angle, we’re bombarded with television advertising, radio, text messaging, video conferencing, and instant messaging (because email is not fast enough anymore!) We’ve been forced to adapt to a society that values multitasking.
(Nevermind that multitasking is a complete and utter myth; not to mention much less effective than “single-tasking.”)
Now that we’ve established that our attention could use some work, how to train it?
Of all the beautiful things that Eastern cultures have contributed to the world, the systematic training of continuous attention – or samadhi – may not only be the most profound but the most practical.
But it’s not easy. Developing samadhi takes some effort – and a lot of that relaxed discipline we discussed earlier.
Putting samadhi into practice
You can start by carving out 15 to 20 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation practice. Here are some basic meditation instructions:
- Find a comfortable sitting position
- Bring your awareness to your body, including any sensations that arise
- Set your awareness in a “witnessing” mode; non-reactive, not cogitating, and not imagining
- If you feel tension anywhere in your body, release it. Allow the body to feel loose and relaxed.
- Set your mind at ease by allowing the breath to come and go naturally.
- Direct your attention to any noticeable breathing sensations. These may appear in the abdomen or around the nostrils or upper lip.
- Specifically, select the most prominent area where the breath is felt
- Direct and hold your attention to this area, bringing the attention back every time it wanders off.
A few things to keep in mind during meditation practice:
- Your mind will wander off – this happens to everyone. You build concentration by bringing back your attention again and again, so don’t be hard on yourself.
- Keep your body loose and relaxed. You’re trying to build a positive feedback loop of concentration!
- If you’re tired but still want to meditate, you can try lying down and doing it. Just don’t make this a habit.
- Consistency is key! Don’t go into meditation practice half-heartedly or treat it like a quick fix. It won’t work.
“If you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.” ~ The Dalai Lama
A compassionate mind is a powerful mind. A compassionate mind is a potent force for the development of self-improvement. How?
First, a compassionate heart – especially towards yourself – will allow you to treat any perceived shortcomings or “failures” differently. Too much harshness is perhaps the number one killer of self-improvement.
Compassion is both relevant and powerful because it builds resilience. You’re bound to fall short once in a while – we all do. The ability to pick yourself back up – and do so with a compassionate, loving, forgiving heart will make all of the difference.
Maybe it’s been a few days – or a few years – since you’ve sought to better yourself. Perhaps you feel worthless or not up the task.
I’m here to tell you that this is all mind-constructed B.S. Don’t allow your mind’s excuses to get in the way of what you want to accomplish.
So here is your bottom line. If you want to improve yourself, nurture self-compassion and forgive your shortcomings, practice a relaxed discipline, cultivate your attention, and form lasting, process-oriented habits.
Most important, love yourself and those around you. That’s the most meaningful type of self-improvement of all.