by John Tarrant
Student: I’m reaching for the light. Please help me.
Teacher: Forget about the light. Give me the reaching.
The desire for a more beautiful life is ancient and enduring. In medieval times it meant dressing in bright silks and having long and colorful processions; the desire was poured into objects, too, into paintings and cathedrals with stained glass windows. Inside the desire for a more beautiful life is the desire for a more beautiful character. We all have the urge to be better people, and behind all our self-improvement there is a profound impulse. Self-improvement is a gateway, the first step in a quest, a clue to a deeper life. The most beautiful form of the beautiful life is inner freedom, the awakening taught in the ancient spiritual traditions.
We can start anywhere
Everything alive has desire. The amoeba improves its life by swimming to the nutrient-rich side of the pond. The shopper improves her life by getting mousse that will hold her hair up really, really high for the wedding. A list of my Amazon purchases would reveal that weird medieval texts, Galactic Light Blasters (“colors may vary”), and Japanese chef’s knives will improve my life.
Unreasonable desires are universal. I just have to look through my credit card statements or Amazon purchases to see how desire becomes unwieldy, chaotic, and self-contradictory, running wild like vines in spring. Will that chocolate I gave my friend require the purchase of a weight-loss book to counter its effects? Did that Galactic Light Blaster, with its flashing colors and weird noises, make us happy at the party? And then the deeper question, full of yearning: “What would I be like if I were happy more often?”
The spiritual path starts with a simple impulse like this. We can start anywhere, go through any gate. We begin by noticing, by becoming curious about reality. “What do I want?” is a gate. That’s what a spiritual path is, a series of queries about reality. It’s not an admonition—“You ought to lose fifteen pounds” or “You should be calm” are not yet curious or compassionate. The quest is more likely to begin with a question that we are immediately interested in, such as “Will the mousse really lift my hair up?” and “What will get me through this day?”
Suffering is sometimes a good thing
Self-improvement is a beginning of something profound. We are starting to embrace the problem of suffering, which, in basic form, appears to be endless: I lack something and struggle to get it, and I’m still unhappy. This is something Buddha was interested in, and that is different from, say, physical pain. While pain is just pain, suffering comes with meaning; it touches on who we think we are.
Here’s a way to think about the difference: My border collie has an enthusiasm for bacon and gophers but she has no interest in a weight-loss program. In a sense, digging for gophers is a weight-loss program but that’s not why she does it. Her motives are pure. She might grow obese from bacon and have a shorter life than otherwise, but that’s fine with her. A dog can be miserable, she can be in pain, her hips will stop working if she weighs sixty pounds, but she doesn’t wonder, “Will my butt look fat if I eat this gopher?”
For humans, though, suffering is a mental thing, our impulses are at war with themselves, and algorithms are born — if chocolate, then happy, but also fat. If fat, then ugly. If ugly, then lonely, unhappy. If chocolate, then weight-loss program.
Compared to the border collie, we suffer from our thoughts, but there’s a liberating power in noticing this. The mind being interested in itself is what makes consciousness. Desire can reflect on itself and discover that, on its own, it is endless and unsatisfied. Suffering provides the editorial pruning necessary for self-knowledge, which is why, in the spiritual tradition, suffering is sometimes A Good Thing.
Suffering is fascinating and exciting and people talk about it endlessly—because noticing it is how tenderness for our own lives and for the lives of others appears. It makes a gap in our difficulties, and in that gap a path into reality is visible.
Goals get us started but then we abandon them
The impulse to self-improvement is simple: something hurts and I want to turn things around. I want to —
not be anxious,
stop fighting with my wife,
change my husband’s personality,
The goals are assumed to be good in themselves. Questions they don’t raise are “What is life about really?” “What is the self that I’m helping?” and “What about unreasonable delight?”
Everything we do will eventually come to an end. We can’t step away from our death. We can’t contrive not to be there when a bomb goes off. By definition we are walking in the dark and feeling our way and can’t control the outcomes. We can’t always do it right.
Self-improvement transcends itself when we pay attention for its own sake
Like our purchases on Amazon, self-improvement is moving us both toward and away from happiness. When we meditate for a purpose—to be calm, to gain insight—we are striving, not meditating. If we spend our time assessing how we are doing, we are defending ourselves against the intimacy of life, not letting it get hold of us.
There is something else, too. The problem with having a known goal is that it is a purchase from the store of things we already know, when what we truly want is something glimpsed dimly and imagined in a haze. We assume that the self is more or less fixed and just needs cleaning up around the edges—maybe we stop procrastinating or calm down.
When I set off on a spiritual quest, I had not imagined what I wanted. My goals were provisional and stood in for my deepest desire, which was something like to join the world, to forget about who I thought I was, and to enter each moment utterly. But I didn’t know that; it was secret even from me. I just knew that I was outside of my life, impermeable and lonely. The view changes as we walk along the path and we abandon the goals that, at first, we had in mind. It’s painful to let go of our original intentions but, eventually, they are in the way because we have been changed, we are no longer the person who set off. Our intentions gave us the journey and that is enough.
Self-improvement transcends itself when we pay attention for its own sake. We don’t pay attention in order to be happy or to fix the problem or to improve ourselves. Attention is a kind of love and our way of showing up, and when we do that, life unfolds by itself. Love is fundamentally modest. It doesn’t try for an outcome; it doesn’t wish it had a different moment from the now it has now or different people from the ones it is with. Love trusts that it is not separate from the world because it is the world.
Forgetting the self is fun
An attorney friend of mine saw his job as making his adversaries fear him. This stance encouraged the other side to dodge a trial and was useful, too, if the trial went ahead. He was always angry and it seemed to be effective. His family often told him that he was impossible, but he brushed it off as the price of success.
One day the Dalai Lama arrived in Tucson, where my friend lived, and for reasons not obvious, the attorney went to hear him. It was four days of lectures and, to him, incredibly boring. It occurred to him that in spite of all that had happened to the Dalai Lama and to his country, the Dalai Lama wasn’t enraged. The attorney walked out of the seminar thinking, “He’s a nice guy, but he must be crazy if he thinks I’m going to give up being angry.”
The next night a man cut him off on the freeway, and my friend leaned on the horn. The other driver gave him the finger and shouted at him. The attorney considered ramming the other car and was about to start shouting, too, when he thought, “Wait, I paid for this Buddhist course. I’ve sat—no—wriggled through it for four miserable days. Why not try it once?” He imagined the guy in the other car was a nice person, and the attorney began laughing. His mind exploded with happiness. His previous way of feeling was so silly. His idea about who he was fell off him.
My friend had a real estate client who hated paying taxes and had ignored messages from the city. With penalties and fines, this client had turned a manageable tax bill into something large and unwieldy. The attorney’s old strategy would have been to go into the city and threaten and yell and make an offer to settle. Then the city might accept the settlement and close the case. This time, as an experiment, he behaved like a fellow human. It wasn’t hard; he just imagined the city worker’s life, what it must be like to deal with dissatisfied and unreasonable people day after day. He asked her if it was hard dealing with angry people. She said, “Everyone who comes here is angry.” She was astonished that he was interested. The attorney explained his case and the confusion and the fees being run up, and wondered if the city could come to terms. He didn’t feel obliged to lie about whose fault it was. They chatted for a bit, and he walked out with an unusually favorable reduction in the bill.
That wasn’t the main discovery, though. The attorney was happier. Anger was a coat that was difficult to take off at the end of the day. Other emotions now appeared. He appreciated the city employee, he enjoyed the beauty of the great saguaros in the desert.
He was embarrassed by the thought of what his wife and children had put up with. It was true that he had been confused — he had thought he needed to be angry to feed his family. But his family was grateful when he stopped helping them in that way.
We work hard to keep our idea of ourselves, but that idea is just made up and we are better off without it. My friend became a different person. He wrote a book about anger and began teaching other attorneys what he had noticed. Helping others turned out to be a natural feature of who he was.
Change doesn’t have to be slow
It doesn’t have to take very long for change to get set in motion. Once upon a time I was working as a copy editor and I noticed that my mind was itself a tangled manuscript and that attempts to untangle made it more tangled.
I had been trying to invent meditation by walking in subtropical forests on the weekends when I heard that some Tibetans were coming to town. I had a vague idea that they were experts in the inner life, trained in the mind. They were offering a monthlong silent retreat and as soon as I heard about it, I signed up. I didn’t really understand anything about meditation, Tibet, Buddhism, or retreats, and I was the sort of person whose legs jiggled when I sat. We were instructed to bring a cushion; I brought a useless throw pillow filled with tiny bits of foam. Sometimes I still feel the unsteady, oceanic rocking that was induced when I tried to sit on it. The lamas held an introductory talk to help you understand
what the retreat was about, so you could decide if you wanted to go, but I didn’t attend that. I didn’t want to be disappointed or to find reasons not to go. A friend who knew the lamas said, “If you do it, it will change you. In some sense you’ll never come back.” She was already too late, though. It was curiously like an impulse buy. I was prepared to make sacrifices; my life took a shape and even a dignity just from hearing about the retreat. The medieval Japanese teacher, Hakuin, said, “If you try meditation even once, all your crimes are wiped away.” I didn’t have to try it even once.
I enjoy people who are starting out on the path and notice that change doesn’t have to be slow. A woman signed up for a beginning koan class. In the week preceding the class, she noticed how much was going on in her mind and began to look for “Zen moments,” as she thinks of them. She was talking to a friend about being cut off in traffic and the inevitable road rage. She realized that she could just let everyone get in front of her, let them have a nice day, and not get mad about it. She didn’t have to have road rage. She didn’t even have to show up to the class for the practice to start working in small ways. Sometimes we are not really lost; we already have what we need, but we haven’t noticed.
Eventually a tenderness opens in us and we start to change. It doesn’t matter if it happens after long years of struggle or if it happens quickly. We just have to be grateful when it comes.
You just need to turn the donkey’s head a bit
The problem of trying too hard is intrinsic to the mind. Perhaps something has opened in us and we have become calm or delighted or free of grief. We don’t yet understand what happened but we want it to happen again. Something opened our hearts, and then we want it delivered right to us as if it were a hair product. But this authoritarian strategy is the opposite of the road we came by. If you stepped into freedom one time by walking into a wardrobe and pushing through the winter coats and finding Narnia, the next time it might be a different gate. Perhaps you will fall off a donkey or someone will curse you on a freeway. I knew a man who had a life-changing experience on LSD and spent decades trying to recapture that experience in Zen retreats. He was a sweet person, and what was genuine and wonderful about him was his trying. The reaching itself was beautiful, but he didn’t notice that.
It took me a long time to learn meditation because at the time feeling unworthy was a way of life for me, and struggling made me feel that at least I was doing something, taking steps and all. If peace appeared I didn’t recognize it and hurried by. Unworthiness and shame were a way of hanging on to my identity. But clueless meditation did turn the donkey’s head toward the barn, and that proved to be good enough. Later I could see that all states of mind are clear and that even turbulent states of mind are bright inside, but then I was just struggling and full of doubt. One day when my mind was wildly, absurdly unruly, I realized that being miserable like that was just being pompous and I laughed and gave up. A tenderness for all living things began to appear. Then naturally my mind fell free and the world shone. The simplest meditation can just be noticing whatever the mind is doing and then not bothering to do it — struggling, for example. This is meditation for people too lazy to improve themselves. A meditation practice actually occupies the space before we start to think about ourselves.
Part of the Buddha’s discovery was to eat when he was hungry, to give up striving to be something strange and special, and so to enter life without conditions. Spiritual practice is a love of this life, the actual life we have.
Mistakes open the tenderness in us
A woman recently wrote me saying, “I’ve started keeping company with the koan ‘There’s nothing I dislike.’ I saw a hawk the other day, and something strange happened that reminded me of the koan, although I don’t really know why. I felt like I was him for a second, maybe not even a second. It was a very strange feeling, and since I am just groping in the dark with this stuff I figured I would mention it.”
When we are free, we are not separate from things. It’s not a crazy state; it’s an expansion of empathy. It’s not that you don’t know who you are in some basic sense—two legs, two eyes, a taste for piled-up hair and intergalactic blasters—that’s just not crucial information and it doesn’t exclude other possibilities. For a moment we might be a bird, or a person of the opposite sex, or a tree, and there is joy in this, in being at home in the universe and not worrying about what bad things might happen to us. Freedom can be triggered by an entirely modest event, but then, any piece of joy is all of joy. A university student said, “I was worrying a lot and then a guy’s sneakers at the gym squeaked and it was the coolest sound.”
All of our desires have an impulse in them that can lead us to discover something deeper than whatever we were looking for. In a fundamental way, we are all moving toward the light and we can’t hold on to the person we thought we were, the one who made all those mistakes. The Zen approach is not about avoiding mistakes but bringing them to the path. Making a mistake opens the tenderness in us and can be more helpful than not making one. Being fat might help you; squeaky shoes and piled-up hair might, too. You don’t need to dislike something or to be anxious in order to move. The path can be through vulnerability, kindness, and joy. Then, the mistakes are not mistakes.
We look for something small and find something large
We are naturally skeptical about whether we can change. We don’t necessarily believe that we will keep our New Year’s resolutions, or that we will get thin, or rich, or calm from improving ourselves. But we would like to believe in change. We want a girlfriend or a boyfriend and think we are too fat. So we try to lose weight. Fair enough, we have to start somewhere. Self-improvement means setting out on a journey and, in some way, forgetting who we are and why we set out.
At first, change is a dream that makes life more hopeful and charming, like reading books about meditating without actually meditating or reading romance novels without the inconveniences of falling in love. A fantasy is a good place to start. In this sense, the Buddha’s life is one of self-improvement. He left his home and the important person he had been, and he tried to wake up using many absurd methods that didn’t work one little bit. But eventually he stumbled into a genuine life and found more than he expected to find. The hope is that we will set off after some little goal and, during the journey, we will forget who we are and why we set off. We’ll stumble onto a treasure that changes everything. The practice is to notice things as we stumble along. Even the stumbling, even groping for the wrong thing, is already perfect. That’s what meditation is.