Why working on yourself doesn’t work (and the simple thing that does)

by | Nov 5, 2013

pretty_shell500_11-2013Like every human being I’ve ever met, I am sometimes discontented.

No big deal.

But during a recent spell of gritchiness, I got the idea that I shouldn’t feel that way. Given my deepening understanding of the spiritual principles behind the human experience, here, sweet silly me, is where I went.

“Self,” I said, “you seem to be off your feed. What’s up with that? What happened to your insights into wisdom, wellbeing, and all that good stuff?”

“I know,” I responded. Clearly I’ve lost the enlightenment thread. If I could just reconnect with my understanding of spiritual principles, I’d feel better, and I would be so much more creative and productive.”

“Well, self,” I said, “since you know all that, what’s keeping you from getting with the program?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but I’ll work on it.”

And so I worked on it.

Why working on it doesn’t work

First, I reminded myself again–and again–that we live in the feeling of our thinking. Frankly, after a few rounds, that just left me with a case of psychospiritual indigestion.

Then I started wondering what I was missing. Exactly where did I lose the thread?

So I spent a lot of time reading, watching videos, and listening to recordings about the nature of human experience in an effort to recapture my previous insights.

Not only did that not work, it was b-o-r-i-n-g I mean, what could be more stale, flat, and unprofitable than chasing the shadows of one’s (supposed) past spiritual attainments?

Besides, it didn’t–and couldn’t–work. We can’t go back to a previous understanding. The stream keeps moving.

Meanwhile, my outlook wasn’t getting any rosier.

But when I wasn’t looking, I felt fine

But actually, it wasn’t quite true that my outlook was poor. There were moments, many of them, when I forgot that something might be wrong. I’d be running or cartooning or watching the World Serious when I’d forget to think about how I was feeling.

In those moments I was quite happy with myself and the world.

In fact, the only time when I wasn’t perfectly fine was when I was wondering why I wasn’t feeling, doing, or being something different.


Who knows why, and it shifted

I can’t say exactly what prompted the moment of insight, but it arrived. In a flash I saw that I was feeling crummy because I kept thinking that I wanted or needed to feel different.

Now the thought, “I want to feel different,” is not unusual. And the thought itself wasn’t the culprit behind my discontent.

The culprit was paying attention to the thought. Picking it up. Turning it over and studying it like a fascinating shell on the beach. Examining it for clues to feeling and doing better.

And the last place to find clues to feeling better is embedded in the fascinating shell of not feeling good.

Insight is its own reward

The moment I saw how thinking about feeling better was keeping me feeling bad, it stopped. It’s not that the thought went away. Like a shell on the beach, the thought was still available.

I just stopped studying it.

And so my world stopped being about feeling better and went back to being about being in my life here and how. Which is, generally speaking, a fine place to be.

Because the only place we can find ourselves to be other than fine is when we become fascinated by an insecure thought of the past or of the future. In this precise present moment, we are always okay.

It’s not about avoiding shells

We don’t have to avoid problematic thoughts. In fact, trying to control or change the content of our thinking is a sure way to get snagged by it.

It’s not changing the thought that produces ease; it’s seeing that it is just another shell on the beach. When we notice that holding onto a particular shell has us stuck, we can put it down.

No harm, no foul.

Just the infinite potential for new thought.

Photo by camknows via Flickr