“Self-understanding rather than self-condemnation is the way to inner peace and mature conscience” —Joshua Liebman
I was talking to a young guy the other day who was telling me how he has been working hard on self-improvement over the past couple of years and was interested to hear my thoughts on the matter.
I asked him what kind of issues he’s been working on and he replied, “Anxiety, self-judgement, anger, overwhelm, frustration. Those are probably the main ones.”
“And how is it going?” I enquired.
“Mixed. Some days I feel I’m making progress. I feel more relaxed, more at peace. And other days I feel little has changed. I still feel a lot of anger and self-criticism. If only I could get to the bottom of it and understand where these patterns are coming from.”
“Do you think that understanding would give you the peace you’re looking for?” I asked.
“Well, if I could figure out the root of all this anxiety and anger, I might be able to get rid of it and finally get on with enjoying my life.”
At this point I said to him, “You know, I’m probably not the best person to talk to about tips for self-improvement. Although there’s nothing wrong with self-development, there’s another path to peace that I recommend—an approach that’s far simpler, quicker and more effective, that doesn’t involve waiting for all your issues to be fixed, and that will allow you to experience peace immediately, no matter what’s going on in your mind. I call it the path of self-understanding”.
Self-Understanding and the Real Reason We Suffer
The Indian spiritual teacher, J.J. Krishnamurti, was once asked whether it’s possible to go through life without any suffering, and he answered:
“If you were able to unconditionally accept sadness, confusion, frustration or envy and see them as simply natural expressions of the human condition, they would no longer cause you to suffer.”
Let’s return for a moment to the conversation I had with the young guy, to the part where he said, “If I could understand the root of all this anxiety, I might be able to get rid of it and finally get on with enjoying my life.”
This statement reveals the true cause of his suffering.
Experiencing anxiety is not the primary reason. Sure, it feels unpleasant but the main cause of suffering is the resistance created by the following beliefs:
- anxiety is bad/ wrong
- I shouldn’t be feeling this
- there’s something wrong with me for experiencing it
- I can’t start living until I’ve got rid of it
All of these beliefs create a strong resistance towards what Krishnamurti calls “natural expressions of the human condition”. Resistance to what is, is the true cause of suffering.
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So what is self-understanding?
Self-understanding means understanding ourselves—realising, for example, that being flawed and imperfect is a perfectly natural part of being human. There’s nothing wrong with it.
As humans, we experience the full range of emotions— sometimes calm, peaceful, loving, upbeat, at other times, anxious, fearful, angry, agitated. None of it is inherently good, bad, right or wrong.
Just like the weather outside, we don’t choose our thoughts, feelings and emotions. They are self-arising and appear as a result of our programming.
Feeling sad, anxious, frustrated or confused isn’t the main reason we suffer in life.
We suffer when we see them as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ and that they shouldn’t be there.
When we experience feelings such as anxiety, anger or sadness, our conditioning tells us there’s something wrong and that we need to get rid of them.
It is this deep-seated habit of rejecting what is essentially a natural part of who we are, that is the true cause of suffering.
Most of us prefer warm, sunny days to cold, rainy ones but it doesn’t make rainy weather bad or wrong. The outer weather just is what it is.
And what if this was also the case with the inner weather? What if there was nothing wrong with all those so-called negative feelings and emotions—if they were just a natural part part of life unfolding through these human forms?
What would happen to your anxiety if you didn’t mind it being there?
What would happen to your sadness if you embraced it and didn’t see it as bad or wrong?
What if you were perfectly at peace with your non-peace?
The Path of Self-Improvement vs The Path of Self-Understanding
Just like the young guy, I spent years thinking there was something wrong with me.
I believed that, in order to experience peace, joy or fulfillment, I would first need to improve myself—to create a wiser, more peaceful, more sorted, more acceptable version of myself.
I believed that the flawed and imperfect version of me was broken and incapable of experiencing peace and love.
And so I spent years on the path of self-improvement, believing that if I could get rid of all my negative issues and only have peaceful thoughts, feelings and emotions, that one day I would experience a happier, more acceptable version of myself.
I was looking for peace on the level of the mind… where it can’t be found because the mind is restless by nature.
What I didn’t realise then is that we are essentially made up of two parts—the flawed, imperfect and constantly fluctuating ego self-image and the eternal, unchanging true Self.
No matter how hard we try to improve the self-image, we will always fall short. It is imperfect by nature and that’s how it’s meant to be.
And the timeless, unchanging, Divine part of your being cannot be improved upon. It’s nature is peace, love and wholeness.
You don’t need to fix anything to experience peace. You need, through self-understanding, to realise that you already ARE peace the moment you stop resisting your experience.
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