Perhaps you’ve been here:
You act in a way you don’t like: you get impatient with someone, flake out, or get distracted. Then comes the thought:
You suck. You need to fix yourself. Right now.
Then you feel hopeless, because you’ve tried to fix these parts of yourself, but you still get impatient, flake out, get distracted, or whatever your vice of choice. So you feel doomed, like you’ll never escape your inadequacies, like you’ll never stop letting people down.
Meditation teacher Jeff Warren describes this as the tail-spin effect:
Pretty soon, judgment is chasing judgment in a tailspin of self-criticism that gets very hard to pull out of.
Does that sound familiar? Welcome to the human condition.
“Human condition” somehow makes me think of this as a disease we’re all afflicted with. But there’s no vaccine for this one.
Warren acknowledges that
We want to be the best we can, but we’re human. and being human means we have flaws.
But all hope is not lost. Warren teaches that there is a way to get out of the tail-spin:
Stop trying to always improve yourself. Instead, get more accepting. It may be the single most radical improvement you ever make.
Acceptance Promotes Healing
Stop trying to improve yourself? Isn’t all progress based on the foundational assumption of self-improvement? What about personal development and growth?
Are we really just supposed to accept ourselves as we are?
Your open accepting awareness is the real healer here. It can do what no amount of scheming and strategizing can.
No planning for how to improve? No striving to get better? No daily actions for growth and progress? No metrics? This feels revolutionary.
But that’s not the only radical thing Warren teaches. He actually encourages us to be as judgmental as we want, even to seek out other flaws and inadequacies we can find. And when we do notice them, to bring them into the fold with a lightness of being,
Ah, yes. I do that too.
It reminds me of my favorite Hafiz poem, Tripping Over Joy.
A New Path to Improvement
So, what about improvement? Do we just trash it altogether?
You’ll be happy to hear it’s still on the table.
Here’s what Warren teaches:
Of course we want to improve ourselves. But that won’t happen from a place of endless self-criticism. That’s just a thought trying to fix a thought, looping around in a tighter and tighter tail-spin.
Lasting improvement comes from a baseline of acceptance. It has to do with the mechanics of consciousness. Every time we fully notice and accept some pattern in ourselves — a pattern of reactivity, a pattern of judgment — then that pattern gets a little less solid.
Accepting awareness is like a solvent. Over time it slowly seeps into our fixations and breaks them up.
Create A New Level of Consciousness
Warren’s teaching on improvement reminds me of two other teachings that are related and relevant.
First is the quote attributed to Albert Einstein:
No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
Second is philosopher Alan Watts on why we can’t improve ourselves:
The reason you want to be better is the reason why you aren’t.
Our endless desire for self-improvement is itself the biggest obstacle to our self-improvement. As Watts points out, the whole conversation around improvement is circular:
If you say you want to improve then you ought to know what’s good for you, but obviously you don’t because if you did then you would be improved. So, we don’t know. We do not really know how to interfere with the way the world is.
A Paradigm Shift
Radical acceptance of what is feels, well… radical. It’s a paradigm shift.
Maybe acceptance will lead to improvement. Or maybe with enough acceptance we will realize that we no longer need to improve. Perhaps that’s the ultimate improvement.
Either way, it promises to free up energy.
It’s definitely worth a spin.