Spirituality and self improvement can at first seem incompatible. Spirituality is rooted in the idea that there is no real “self” and that dissolving the ego—or at least trying to look past it and act as if it wasn’t there—is the best way to proceed in life. Self improvement, on the other hand, is a constant development of that very self we’ve just claimed doesn’t exist.
And yet I would consider them two of the most important themes in my life. How can you have both at the same time? How do you reconcile the two? Here’s how I do it..
In his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Amazon), Sam Harris describes spirituality; “the conventional sense of self is an illusion and spirituality largely consists of realizing this, moment to moment”. He continues, “the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self – and to seek such freedom”.
While I agree with Harris, my own definition of spirituality also includes some other ideas. Let’s unpack what I mean (roughly) when I use the term spirituality.
Spirituality, to me, encompasses these ideas:
- The conventional sense of self is an illusion and “we” as humans are not separate from reality/existence or anything else. It only feels like we are, and we are so used to thinking about and experiencing reality this way that we think it is the only way things can be.
- Everything is one and oneness is the fundamental basis of reality. At the most basic level, I am you, you are me, we are all everything, everything is each one of us, and so on.. because nothing is separate from anything else.
- Everything in the universe that appears to be separate is a unique expression of the fundamental whole. The different aspects of reality are the universe expressing itself in different ways. This includes what we consider to be our “selves” or egos.
- Life or existence as we know it is something like a play, a game, or a drama that the universe is playing with itself. Each person’s ego is existence/reality “playing a character” as the universe expresses itself through each of us in a unique way.
- Some focus on being present or “in the now”, including the realization/understanding that the only thing that ever really exists is the present moment, and an effort (or allowance—depending on how you look at it) to remain present and mindful often in daily life.
I always find the words of Alan Watts useful when trying to explain this. He has a way of describing these concepts that makes them stick (and not seem like complete nonsense). Here’s a quote that gets at what I’m trying to say:
We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.
And another one:
It’s as if you had a light, covered with a black ball, and in this ball were pinholes, and each pinhole is an aperture through which the light comes out. So in that way every one of us is actually a pin hole, through which the fundamental light—that is the existence itself—looks out. Only, the game we’re playing is not to know this. To be only that little hole, which we call me, my ego, my specific John Jones or whatever.
Why is Spirituality Important?
While we are all here on earth sharing a similar experience of the world, consider for a moment how limited our perception of reality is.
Don’t believe me?
Consider that, as far as we know, the earth is currently spinning on its axis at 1,000mph while hurtling around the sun at over 67,000mph. We are in constant motion, travelling hundreds of times faster than any train, car or plane has ever travelled. And yet, you sit or stand reading this right now and everything seems perfectly still.
Or consider that there are millions of biological processes happening inside your body—right now and during every moment of your life—none of which you are consciously aware of. Cells are multiplying, food is digesting, your blood is circulating and your heart is beating. All this is happening and yet “you” really have nothing to do with it.
Can you see that our immediate perception of reality is extremely limited? Might it be possible that everyone is completely off the mark with the way they imagine things to be? Is it that hard to imagine that all of humanity may have been mistaken about the nature of its existence—that we’ve all been fooled by a collective illusion—for as long as we’ve existed?
Now consider that you or I can ingest a substance such as LSD or psilocybin and experience a reality that is completely different to the one we are experiencing now. The entire universe is perceived in a distinctly different way as our consciousness is altered – and yet during the experience that reality seems just as real or even more real than this one.
Clearly there’s ‘something’ going on here. Something we don’t fully understand and something that is—I think—potentially very significant.
Two things get to the essence of what this site is about. The first is the tagline “A blog about being good at life” and the second is a quote by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Character is destiny”.
To me, self-improvement encompasses these ideas:
- Life/living is something you can be better or worse at. We (you, me, readers of this blog) want to be the best we can at it.
- The characteristics and quality of your life are determined by the person you are – your character
- There is a “best version” of each person – or at least a better one than exists now. Everyone can improve themselves to get closer to that individual ‘best self’
- In order to live the best life, whatever that means for you, you need to become the person who lives that life. The journey to becoming that person is self improvement.
And while this journey might – and probably should – involve helping other people along the way, it is primarily about the self. Many of the themes I discuss on this site: mindset, habits, health, fitness, girls, travel, they’re all manifestations of a one’s character or “self”.
Self improvement is the main theme of this blog and it’s been the central focus of my life since I became “self aware” at around 16-17. It is the subject of my first book, Self Improvement in Practice. It’s a thread that runs through all of my thoughts, behaviours, beliefs, and most everything I do.
Reconciling Spirituality and Self-Improvement
If spirituality means realizing there is no self and self improvement is all about the self, the question to answer then is Why do you care about improving your self if it doesn’t really exist?
Here’s how I see it. Once you realize the “truths” of spirituality you have two options.
You can realize that nothing is separate, that we are not our egos, that life as an individual “person” is not real, and simply decide to not participate in the whole thing. You don’t see the point in taking part in a made-up reality so you disengage from society and conventional human activity. This does (mostly) make sense and if that’s what you want to do – fine by me.
But there’s another approach and it’s one that I think is much more fun, engaging, and ultimately rewarding. Rather than “dropping out” of life you dive in and participate in the experience of being human (and the experience of being everything!) to the fullest extent possible.
Focusing on self-improvement means taking your life seriously – after all, your life is all you’ve got. But spirituality means being aware that life and reality, as we experience it, is fundamentally not serious and not even really “real”.
Here’s another quote from Alan Watts:
If.. we can maintain at the same time the sense of being this specific John Jones, with his role in life or whatever, and know underneath this that we are the whole works, you get a very marvellous and agreeable arrangement. This is a most remarkable harmoniousness—I mean it gives one’s life a great sense of joy and exuberance—if you can carry on these two things at once. If, in other words, you know that all the serious predicaments of life are a game.
So on the one hand, I recognize that nothing is real, that all separateness is an illusion, and that we are not really our selves. But at the same time I am playing the role of a self—the “character” of me—with as much vigour and enthusiasm as I can. That’s playing the game.
Final Thoughts/Loose Ends: Are Spirituality and Self-Improvement Mutually Reinforcing?
Let’s take it one step further and consider how spirituality and self improvement can be mutually reinforcing.
It’s often one’s commitment to self improvement that leads to an interest in spirituality in the first place. Maybe you realize a quieter mind is an excellent way to increase productivity and you start to meditate. Maybe you learn about the potential benefits of psychedelics, it interests you, and you try some mushrooms or LSD.
However it happens, the desire for self improvement often does lead to spirituality. And it makes sense: if we want to be the best people we can be and live the best lives we can in this reality – we need to attempt to understand this reality.
To embrace spirituality and the exploration of consciousness is to do just that, and in that way it’s very complementary to the self improvement process.
I do take issue with the view of spirituality or “enlightenment” (whatever that means) as just another item on a checklist for self improvement or self actualization. Reducing spirituality to yet another goal to achieve—even the biggest or “final” goal—doesn’t do it full justice.
So while it can and probably should be an important element of self improvement, spirituality is about more than that. Ultimately it’s about truth: trying to understand the nature of existence, experience and reality as best we can. It’s about experiencing this experience—whatever it is, however it happens—in all of its entirety.
In this way spirituality and self improvement are mutually reinforcing. To me they fit perfectly together… and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I hope you enjoyed this post—it was probably my favourite one to write so far. I’m curious what you think about these ideas and if you have any thoughts on the topic, I would love to hear them. Post a comment below to let us know what you think.