Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of March 12, 2012

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Self-Improvement

(The Path of Purpose: Part 3 of 9)

The huge and bewildering array of systems, techniques, and teachers for self-improvement can make it hard for us to know where to turn to develop our own unique set of talents and potentials, while addressing our unique obstacles and difficulties. One way to begin to make sense of all those approaches is to look at them along the spectrum of functioning, being, and serving, or of which self will be improved, our personality, our character, or our spirit. Does a method help us function better? Does it help us be more? Does it enable us to serve more deeply?

How well we function concerns our body, our heart, and our mind, the remarkable equipment with endless versatility, given to us at birth. To live a full life and raise our chances of entering the spiritual path, we need balanced development; we need to cultivate our body, our emotions, and our mind, in the ordinary sense. We look to develop our social, professional, recreational, and artistic skills, as well as our personal affect (our emotions), personal finances, and our time management. Obviously, education is the primary way of improving our mental functions, but many other activities also contribute, such as knowledge work and interests, social interactions, and games. Social interactions also contribute to our emotional development, as does engaging in the arts, whether as a spectator or, even better, as a participant. We develop our body in many ways, such as proper diet, adequate rest, engaging in sports, exercises and dance, and playing musical instruments.

Our most serious, personality-level obstacles generally arise from our disorganized and chaotic emotional life. If something is wrong with our body we seek medical care. If our emotions pose particular difficulties for leading a normal life, or for pursuing our spiritual practice, we can seek psychotherapy. Many of us have, at times, psychological problems severe enough to hamper or even block our spiritual inner work; we need enough psychological health to open a clear path to the spirit.

Some forms of psychotherapy aim to alleviate the immediate issue. Others look to the roots of the problem and straddle the line between improving our emotional functioning and raising the level of our being. In depth psychotherapy, such as Jungian analysis, the client and analyst work together to open channels of communication with the unconscious, often through dream imagery, and to repair and reintegrate our conditioned, unconscious mind. In doing so, the therapy aims at wholeness and at contact with the unconditioned, with the Self. This process is slow, years or decades, and cannot be rushed. Many are drawn to it and benefit enormously.

The spiritual path, which also is slow, has, in part, similar effects, though employing a quite different approach. The methods of the path enable our awareness to grow in all dimensions. That includes more awareness of ourselves, of what drives us, and through that a process of repair and reintegration of our psyche takes place naturally. In part, this comes from extending our conscious awareness into what was once unconscious, as the practices of meditation and presence widen the embrace of our awareness and enhance our ability to see deeply. For some time, what we see is mostly content: the conflicting and conflicted drives and urges within us. Simply by seeing all this without judgment, with clear-eyed compassion for ourselves, by allowing ourselves to be as we are, our many inner wounds begin to heal.

As all of that begins to settle, our efforts of self-improvement cross from improving our functioning to raising the level of our being. We find a measure of inner peace and become able to be in that spacious, peaceful consciousness itself. And in the practice of presence from that place of consciousness, we come into our Self, we become our I.

Methods of enhancing our body awareness can play an important role in self-development, even beyond the level of functioning well. Yoga and Tai Chi, for example, straddle the line between functioning and being; they train us to be in contact with our body, in terms of external posture and of movement, thus improving the functioning of our body. We also learn to be aware of our body from within; we learn to be in our body. A powerful and direct method for this consists of the work on sensing our body, our inner body. Sensing does not depend on any particular set of postures or movements: it can be practiced in almost any situation.

Sensing also supports the primary methods for increasing our being, namely the practices of presence and meditation. The more we enter into the way of being, the more we wish to enter it. We see our limited time passing and realize that we cannot put off our inner work for later. We see that raising the level of our being leads us into a more joyous, meaningful, and complete life. At some moments, we have the direct experience that we are, that we exist in a timeless fashion. We come into the vast and peaceful hall of consciousness. When such moments recede, they leave a taste, they leave us moving more and more into the immediate practice of presence, into the experience of here I am. This is self-improvement in a deeper sense.

Service puts our functioning and our being to positive use for purposes beyond our own welfare. We may engage in outward forms of service, from simple kindness and courtesy toward the people around us, to helping charitable, environmental, or humanitarian organizations. There are also unrecognized but important forms of inner service. For example, in meditation and contemplative prayer we transform inner energies, making more refined spiritual energies available in this world. Those energies raise the level of awareness and help us and others move beyond self-centeredness in the small sense to serving the greater Self that includes all of life. So in practicing the deeper methods of the spiritual path, we not only serve our own well-being, but also the well-being of all those with whom we share this life, this planet.

Our ego seeks self-improvement for self-centered, even selfish reasons, yet we do not reject that motivation; we use it to embark on and reinforce our lifelong quest to raise our level in the ways that matter to us. Ultimately the skills and abilities we develop can be put into serving a higher purpose than our own self-centeredness. We become ourselves. However, we should not expect perfection as the end result of our efforts of self-improvement, for perfection cannot come in that way: it comes from deep within, from our spirit.

For this week, notice the ways you engage in improving yourself, in directing your own evolution. Notice also what approaches may be missing or need to change.

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