I don’t love the term “self-improvement.”
Between recovery, therapy and Buddhism I engage in a lot of activities that people might call self-improvement. I’m also on Weight Watchers, and making my first tentative steps towards some kind of exercise regime. But nothing that I am doing feels like self-improvement. I don’t feel like I’m adding a wing to this house of me or putting in a pool. I feel like I’m returning myself to a true original state.
This is restoration, not improvement.
My teacher Noah Levine likes to tell a Buddhist parable about finding an ancient city in the jungle. It’s covered in earth and trees, just a huge mound now, but you can see some parapets rising from the top of the mound. You can excavate that city, reveal its wide avenues and sturdy stone structures, and eventually you can move in. That city is your heart, and the excavation is Buddhist practice of the Eightfold Path.
This really works for me. I like to look at it through the lens of film. Self-improvement, as understood in our society, is the Special Editions of Star Wars – pointless, meaningless additions and changes to a thing that was, frankly, already perfect. Perhaps the original prints were dull and dirty, but was the answer to make Han shoot first and stick Jabba in there and change the Death Star explosion?
No, the answer is to carefully take the print and restore it to its original condition. Over the years crud has built up on it, the colors have faded, the sound has gotten scratchy, but with hard – painstaking! – work the print can be made to look as vibrant and fresh as the day it was shot. In recent years we have seen so many astonishing examples of this, of movies rescued from crummy prints playing pan and scan on low-res VHS, returned to theaters in all their Technicolor glory. And without a frame changed, without a scene restored, without any new additions.
Thus it is with us. The Buddha said:
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.”
We start out with a mind and a heart open to compassion and love and forgiveness. But through our experiences we may begin to lose those things. They become hidden like an ancient city under mounds of dirt, or faded like a print left to slowly decay. And the Buddha promises that if we just do the work we can get it all back to its original, pristine state.
This has been a major change in thinking for me. While I’m an atheist/agnostic I did grow up in the Catholic Church and in a Judeo-Christian society. Original Sin is a guiding philosophical concept around these parts – you are born bad. Like so many other Judeo-Christian moral concepts, Original Sin has been baked into me and into my worldview, making me inherently distrustful of others and inherently pessimistic about the world.
But by shifting my perspective to see what many Western Buddhist teachers call our “Buddha-nature” (that concept, derived from Indian, Chinese and Zen thought, sounds a little too GOOP-y for my tastes, and I’m always looking for a better way to express it) has allowed me to interact with the world in a different way. And it’s allowed me to look at myself in a different way.
I now understand that when someone does something terrible or hurts me it’s not because they’re bad, it’s because their print is faded. I’ve seen many movies in shitty condition and been underwhelmed by them, only to have everything turn around when I saw a restored print. It’s the same movie, but damn is the experience ever different. So it is with people – the same person, when restored to their original condition, can be totally different
This perspective also helps me grapple with my own past. I no longer look at past misdeeds as “sins” but rather as defilements that can be reversed. Excavating the city doesn’t deny the fact that it was once covered in dirt, but being covered in dirt doesn’t mean the city is gone forever.
I have only been restoring my print for a short time. In that time I’ve uncovered colors I forgot were in there… but I’ve also discovered other things that were threatening the integrity of the print. That’s part of the process; what looks at first like a simple clean-up job becomes more complex as you go along, and requires many different approaches and solutions. When I first got into recovery I thought one specific 12 step program was for me, but as I’ve dug deeper I’ve realized that I need to belong to other groups as well. You think you have gotten to the source of the trouble with one frame only to discover that there’s an entirely new set of problems lurking just under that tear or speck of dirt.
And you know what? It’s exciting. The process becomes longer and harder, but it also clearly works. The fact that it clearly works helps me dig in deeper, because I know I’m not wasting my time. This must be what it feels like for an archeologist to extract the foundation of an ancient temple or a film restorer to be the first person to see the true color of an actor’s outfit in 40 years.