Self-Improvement and Awakening

April 9th, 2008

Let’s say we want to ‘wake up’, ‘discover the meaning of it all’, or ‘find our inner joy’. How do we do this?

To our dualistic minds, the answer is simple. We explore different methods, and eventually find a method that will allow us to affect the necessary change.

Change. That’s the key, whether we want to improve our financial life, find emotional balance, or discover our connection with ‘God’ or ‘The Universe’. To our dualistic minds this makes perfect sense – if I want to become emotionally balanced, for instance, I need to find ways to change my emotions so that I can discover emotional peace.

This is the idea of improvement, and we’re all quite familiar with it. Indeed, it makes so much sense to us and seems so intrinsic to life that we seldom stop to question it. We spend our entire lives in an effort to improve our life situation, working and working at it until we finally grow old and die.


When it comes to Awakening, it’s no different. If you are on a quest to discover Awakening, look carefully at your mind’s activity regarding the quest.

First, we create some idea of what awakening is. If we’ve just learned about awakening, this idea may be fairly superficial (no negative emotions, a continual feeling of bliss or peace). As we explore awakening further, we create more subtle ideas about what awakening is (an indescribable interconnectedness with all creation, or a direct sensation of Emptiness).

Once we have our idea, we set about finding a way to achieve it. If we observe ourselves closely, this idea of achievement will almost always involve some idea of self-improvement or self-modification. In this way our quest for Awakening will instead turn into a quest to change ourselves in some way.

These methods are not fruitless. By changing our financial strategies, we can indeed have more money in our lives. By exploring our emotions, we can find more emotional balance. But these things have little to do with Awakening. In the end, we’ll likely discover that money does not bring us lasting joy, and that experiencing a constant state of emotional happiness isn’t really all that fun.

So if we can’t Awaken by trying to awaken, how do we get there?

Let’s Get Cancer

For an imperfect analogy, allow me to use something that most people would consider a negative example. Let’s imagine that you have just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Imagine the emotional changes that sweep over you. Over the next few months, as you develop a relationship with your cancer, you continue to move through profound changes. And then, on month four, some of the treatments you have been going through affect an almost miraculous recovery, and your cancer goes into complete remission. Imagine the changes which move through you now.

At the end of the four months, you have gone through incredible and life-changing growth and evolution. You’ve developed a new perspective on life, have new ideas of what’s important, and approach life completely differently.

Now, what if you never had cancer, but you decided that you wanted to get to the same place that you would be four months after the imaginary diagnosis we outlined above? Suppose you had made a decision to pay more attention to those you love, to set different priorities, to be nice to people even if they were mean to you, and to develop a total acceptance of whatever was happening in your life.

You could spend years and years trying to cultivate these qualities. You might make some progress, but you’d probably never get to the place where your experience with cancer brought you in only four months.

It Happens

The key here is to notice that in a manner of thinking, the cancer creates these changes in you. The cancer comes, and initiates changes more powerfully and effectively than if you had made a willful decision to create those same changes.

Awakening is much like this. You may indeed experience some remarkable changes as you awaken, but these changes are a sort of ‘byproduct’ of your awakening. And oddly, those changes that you felt were so important before (emotional balance, feelings of peace, etc.) are seen to be totally unimportant. They are a fruit growing on your tree, but they’re no longer seen as being more important or special than the leaves, the bark, the sunlight or the soil.

Let’s Get Angry!

Anger is a great example to see how this process works. Many of us feel that anger is a bad thing, and we try to reduce or eradicate anger from our beings. As we try to suppress our anger, we create great tension inside ourselves – anger emerges, we try to push it aside, and then we get even more angry with ourselves for being unable to control our anger.

But what happens when we don’t resist our anger? When we don’t resist it, anger has nowhere to go. It emerges, looks around, and evaporates. It’s not until we apply resistance that it emerges as the emotion we know as ‘anger’.

Awakening, then, is more like a process of allowing rather than becoming. It’s not about changing ourselves so that we’re more balanced, reserved, compassionate, or observant. It’s about ceasing to apply effort toward becoming something else.

We’re Just Fine

This idea doesn’t accord with anything we’ve learned. We’ve all learned that we’re flawed, and in need of improvement. One look at ourselves in the mirror and we confirm this belief. Ask yourself if you think that you could use improvement on some level – financial, emotional, physical, intellectual, or spiritual. When we answer ‘yes’ to this, we discover how deeply held this belief is, and are able to get in touch with some actual examples of places where we apply this belief in our lives. If we look carefully enough, we’ll find that this belief guides almost 100% of our life actions.

How can we give this up? Again, it’s not about giving it up. You can try for decades to renounce your desire for improvement, but it won’t go away. At best, you’ll be able to suppress it for a few months or years, but it will still retain its power over your life.

So How Do We Do It?

The key is simply to let our natural awareness be aware. In doing so, this belief that we need to change evaporates, and all the problems it causes evaporate with it.

Of course, our dualistic mind-set jumps right in and thinks – ‘Okay, so if my effort is getting in the way, then all I need to do is wait and Awakening will happen’. But our waiting is laced with effort – what is it we’re waiting for, and why are we waiting?

Awareness is all we need. For now, it’s fine to apply that awareness by an effort of will. Take the time to pay some attention to how your mind works. Meditate, or use a method to remind you to pay attention to what thoughts are going through your head. If we apply this attention regularly, we’ll begin to see that our minds are in a state of constant striving.

Observing, you’ll experience your desires, and see how your daily actions and thoughts revolve around attempting to secure those desires (and oddly, in many cases, how your actions actually act to thwart them). When you fulfill one of your desires, you’ll see how it quickly evolves into a new desire, leaving you forever unfulfilled. The cycle continues until we die or finally see this effort for what it is.

When our attention delves deeply enough into these patterns, it will see that awareness – pure, unbounded and unwilled awareness – is always operating in our lives. We’ll see that our efforts are all in an attempt to bury this awareness under the ‘sensible’ things which we’ve been taught. In this way we operate on the level of hope, of fulfilling desires, and of making constant attempts to improve our lives. We never notice that our life right now is the only life we’ll ever be living, and that the only important thing is to be able to experience life. Everything else is just a constant effort that only creates a continuing cycle of desire.

Don’t Give Up!

Often on this site I’ve described the necessary process toward enlightenment as a sort of ‘giving up’. But don’t mistake this for our regular notion of giving up. Our regular notion is simply a collapse into more subtle brands of effort, and it leaves us feeling tired, hopeless, and full of despair.

Your time is now. Don’t worry about where in your idea of linear time ‘now’ will arrive. Just start paying some attention to your mind’s activity. Trust in your inner intelligence. Put your faith in no teacher, no words. You are wiser than any words. But your wisdom doesn’t lie in your thinking, in your teaching, or in your learning.

Your wisdom lies in your simple, present awareness.

11 Responses to “Self-Improvement and Awakening”

  1. Tom Stine says:

    Excellent Kenton. Awareness is the answer, is it not? Or, not really the answer per se, but, as Bankei said, “all things are perfectly resolved in the unborn.” Awareness resolves everything. And each thing in its own way. Including awakening.

  2. Thank you, Tom. Well said!

    I was at your site and encountered your current video post. I must say that I love that method of presentation. It allows your readers to really feel a personal connection with you. Bravo!


  3. “your wisdom doesn’t lie in your thinking, in your teaching, or in your learning”. it’s just there. if we hold still and pay attention we can feel it.

    and then really there’s no wisdom either, no? just … being. and no-being. and none. and both.

  4. Jerry S. says:

    Hi, Kenton!

    Well, here we go –

    How many ways can the same concept be stated, expounded, clarified, codified, nuisanced, perceived, manipulated, cajoled, shared, imparted, taught, exposed and realized? Awareness watching Awareness is the key. Focus on being Aware, dwell in it. When you find yourself slipping out gently coax your self back into being Aware of being Aware. We simply are already what we are. Our task is simply to let go of trying and just be Aware of the flow as it passes. However, paradoxically, by trying not to try, we are still trying. We have to let go of seeking for what is already staring us in our faces and be Aware of Awareness. That’s when we see our true selves. Don’t try not to try and don’t try to try. Say hello to the One who is watching, for He is you! What fun!!

  5. What can I say, Jerry? Well said. It’s obvious that you’re seeing into the nature of this site — each post pointing, in its own way, to a single thing. Your comment does a great job of following that tradition.

    What fun indeed!


  6. This is amazing.. the clarity speaks to me and is really helping me form a picture or idea of what it is I’m looking for
    which would be that awareness

    and its interesting to see that you didn’t say its being happy 24/7
    that anger is ok..
    ive experienced getting angry and just allowing it to be instead of being angry that I’m angry

    I was surprised to feel a difference in just allowing my emotions to just be as opposed to the incessant surpressing (or putting on clothes like you mentioned in your other article)

    Thank you for this!

  7. Greetings JEMi,

    Glad this helped! Interesting that you’ve had the experience you describe regarding anger. That’s probably one of people’s biggest stumbling blocks — forming an expectation of what awakening is (for instance, being on a constant emotional level), and then trying to accord with that expectation.



  8. John Mason says:

    I have just been diagnoised with neck and possibly throat cancer (yesterday) and although I realize that I am most likely still in some phase of denial, I am also excited about the prospect of using this ‘dose of reality’ to facilitate my awakening–by which I mean the realizing of the illusion of Ego and the experience of that which has been called “…the unborn, eternal mind of clear light”. Could you help me find a teacher or guide to help me with this process. Needless to say, time is of the essence.

  9. Greetings John,

    So wonderful that you can find excitement in the midst of this. =)

    I’d be happy to talk to you more — you can contact me through the ‘contact’ section of this website.



  10. John Mason says:

    This cancer in my neck and throat has become, as Carlos Costnada (sp) called it, my “spiritual advisor”. I have found, over the past couple of weeks, that it is far easier than it has been in over thirty years (since my mid-twenties) to SEE/HEAR/FEEL the world I believe it might be a good exercise to write a letter to yourself announcing that you have Cancer or some other fatal illness and have only a short time left to live. Resolve to live ‘as if’ it were real for that period of time. It’s also interesting how suddenly I became what for me is bold; i.e. I began calling my Doctor by his first name. I’m trying to express my appreciation for the opportunity this diagnosis has given me and, once again, I ask if there is anyone who can give me knowledge, support, technical advice… I want to use this time. And, Kenton, I am going to copy this to the ‘contact’ section and would greatly appreciate anything you have to say.

  11. Greetings John,

    Thanks for continuing to share in your journey. I’ll look forward to talking to you!



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