What are ‘near enemies to the truth’? Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.
Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the first blog post in this series.
Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this month's Near Enemy.
NEAR ENEMY #7: I WANT TO BE MY BEST SELF
The self-help industry has perpetuated the story that the purpose of human life is psychological and/or spiritual growth, and that this growth inevitably leads to the actualization of your 'innate potential' and the manifestation of the best version of you.
This is in fact a very modern idea. The spiritual traditions of South Asia (and indeed most of the world) do not hold this view. They are unanimously oriented to the goal of discovering the true nature of reality, also known as clear seeing. Since the goal of the spiritual life is to see clearly what is already true and always was, the spiritual path requires no growth per se. Clear seeing doesn't require you to be a 'better person' or any specific kind of person. To put it another way, the spiritual path is exclusively a destructive process, not a constructive one. It necessitates ridding yourself of whatever is preventing your clear seeing, such as attachment to your stories and opinions, self-images, and samskāras.
For this reason, people who want to build a healthy psyche must do psychological work in addition to their spiritual work; it doesn't happen automatically as part of the process of self-realization. Realization (aka enlightenment aka abiding awakeness) does not come with a built-in moral code, nor does it automatically bring about psychological maturity. Surprisingly few people realize this, despite abundant examples of gurus and teachers who experientially realized the Self and/or the truth of nonduality but never did their basic psychological work or educated themselves about social issues. Not realizing that this is possible, indeed all too common, has given rise to a host of problems relating to the role of the guru/teacher. A self-realized being is a good moral guide only insofar as s/he has educated themselves on moral issues, because though her self-realization gives her access to a nonintellectual intuitive faculty that is an unerring guide for her real-life decisions, it does not give her an automatic download vis-a-vis moral issues generally.
Let's be very clear: trying to be a 'better person' in the sense of causing less harm and more benefit is a perfectly laudable and noble goal, it just has no direct relationship with spiritual awakening. The whole reason that, in Yoga, one works with the Yamas and Niyamas right up front is because that work forms beneficial habits and and attitudes that are unlikely to be automatically downloaded by the spiritual realization that comes later, but also unlikely to be undone by it.
So what the heck is this 'best self' that people want to be? All too often, it's a socially-conditioned figment of their imagination that is seen as preferable to the psyche they have now. When people reflect on their experience, they imagine the possibility that they could, at some point in the future, be continuously as good and kind and loving as they were on their most kind and loving day ever. They call this imagined possibility their 'potential' or their 'best self'. But you see the problem? If you think this way, you are creating a situation in which you almost constantly fail to live up to how you think you should be, so you will experience self-hatred as a result. Ironically, believing that you are not as you should be drains you of the very life-energy that would otherwise allow you to contribute to others' well-being.
So this Near Enemy — "I'm trying to become a better person" or "I want to be my best self" — can actually be insidiously harmful if it is a clever disguise worn by your self-hatred, which is very commonly the case. I strongly recommend asking yourself why you want to grow and be a 'better person'. To (over)simplify things, there are two usual reasons that people strive to become better: either because they (consciously or subconsciously) believe that they are not good enough as they are, or because they want to contribute to others' well-being. These two motivations for the growth process are therefore opposite: the first is self-hatred in disguise, and the second is an expression of love. The first is me-focused and the second is focused on benefitting others. But this is an oversimplification because it's so easy for the second motive to be a disguise worn by the ego: do you really long to contribute to others' well being or do you want to be seen as a 'good person'? The latter is again self-hatred, because one needs validation from others in direct proportion to the degree of one's self-doubt and sense of unworthiness.
Here is my radical proposition: all attempts at growth motivated by disguised self-hatred ultimately fail, and often cause harm. After all, religions teach exactly this kind of paradigm—that you're not okay as you are, and you need to strive to conform to the moral code that that religion teaches in order to be okay as a human and/or go to heaven—and I think we can all agree that all the major religions have almost completely failed to successfully meet the challenges of modern life or produce consistently kind and loving people.
You are already whole and divine, before you engage in any growth or self-improvement. Growth is natural for a healthy mind, but it doesn't redress some fundamental deficiency. There is no deficiency. A tree is a tree at five feet high or at sixty feet high; it doesn't become worthy of being called a tree only at a specific height, and it perfectly expresses its tree-ness at at stage of growth. Tat tvam asi—that's how you are. You are perfectly human and perfectly divine, right now. Your so-called flaws do not indicate unworthiness or deficiency any more than the maria (dark spots) on the moon indicate some kind of lunar unworthiness or deficiency.
When others express dissatisfaction with your behavior(s), the ego interprets that in terms of a personal failing, but in reality there's no such thing; there's just the fact of how well or how poorly you conform to the invented moral code of your community of humans, which itself is a function of causes and conditions that you didn't choose (like your genes and upbringing). Now, if others' dissatisfaction with your behaviour compels you to change that behaviour, there are again two reasons for doing so. If you believe you're not okay as you are and you need to change in such a way as to please others, you might make earnest attempts to do so but you will simultaneously subconsciously resent the people who don't accept you as you are and who place this burden of having to change upon you, and that resentment will inevitably taint your relationships with them. If, on the other hand, you want to change your behavior out of a desire to contribute to well-being (your own and others'), because of the intrinsic joy and satisfaction of making such a contribution, not only will your growth be untainted, it will take a course that actually is beneficial. In first paradigm, you risk not being true to yourself and sacrificing your integrity to please others, whereas in the second, you will contribute to others' well-being without being untrue to yourself, because your motivation is love, and being untrue is unloving.
So it is incumbent upon you to do some self-inquiry: is your attempt to change any given behaviour based in love or self-hatred? Here’s a clue: if your striving to change is hard and effortful, if you beat yourself up for perceived failures in that process and need acknowledgement for perceived successes, it’s probably based on self-hatred. By contrast, if you feel intrinsically nourished by the process of growth, and don't think of it in terms of success and failure, it’s probably based on love.
Let’s take the example of someone who has decided to give up alcohol for 40 days. If, halfway through, they have a beer with a friend after a challenging day, they might subsequently view themselves as a failure. But this is a very nonbeneficial view — in fact, (to switch to the second person) if you see such an incident as a failure on your part, that makes it more likely that you will abandon the discipline altogether and lose all the benefit thereof. The benefit of renouncing a dependency for 40 days is hardly undone by one act of indulgence; whereas it is certainly undone by believing in the failure story. Remember: the ego would rather be right than happy every time, so if you see yourself as a failure, it will prompt actions that correspond with that view. Every self-image is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Furthermore, those who adhere successfully to a moral code tend to be much more judgmental of those who don’t. If you ask the average nonspiritual person who their most judgmental friend is, they will generally person perceived as morally upright, whether that person is a vegan yogī or a conservative Christian.
So do yourself and your loved ones a favor: instead of trying to be a better person based on perceived deficiencies, practice radical self-acceptance first and foremost. (And please note that self-acceptance does not mean self-approval! Approval is just the inverse of disapproval, and acceptance is not part of that paradigm; it's the realization that you couldn’t in this moment be different from how you are, and how you are in this moment is perfectly okay.) On that firm foundation, open up to feedback and then, based on that feedback and the words of your teacher(s), decide what you’re actually inspired to change out of love for yourself and others. As part of your self-acceptance, you accept whatever degree of inspiration you have in whatever areas you have it, and you don’t imagine it could or should be otherwise.
With this reflection, we begin to see that “my best self” is an idealized image of a future possibility that all actualities fall short of. If you believe that this “best self” is what you should be, then by definition you are neither loving nor accepting yourself as you are now. Such love and acceptance generates the life-force energy needed to effect beneficial change, whereas self-hatred drains it. People who hate themselves don’t change their behaviours for very long: like a dieter who diets because she hates her body never almost never loses any weight without subsequently gaining it all back again. This is because only love generates the degree of prāna necessary for lasting beneficial change. If you don’t have thorough self-acceptance, spend the precious little prāna you do have on cultivating it.
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Lastly, we sometimes encounter a related Near Enemy, which is the notion that you’re here in this lifetime on planet Earth to learn specific lessons. This idea is surprisingly common despite being so insidious. Stop and think about it: if you're here to learn specific lessons, and you don’t learn them, your whole life is basically a failure. It’s an idea that fosters subtle self-hatred for who you are now and sets you up for future suffering as well. The New Age idea that you were born in the place and time you were and to the parents that you were in order to learn specific lessons effectively devalues human life by implying that your worth is based on the number and degree of insights you have. To be frank, this is some horrible bullshit. Your intrinsic worth is proven by your very existence. Anyone who says otherwise is selling you a story about the kind of person they think you should be. Now, if you’re not interested in doing your basic psychological work, I probably wouldn’t want to be close friends with you, but that has nothing to do with your intrinsic value. If I don’t want to be friends with you, it’s just because I want to avoid the hassles that tend to arise when someone hasn’t done that work; to think that me (or anyone) not wanting to be close to you reflects on your intrinsic value is just crazy, and is another manifestation of the obsessive self-referencing that generates most of your suffering.
In conclusion, everything comes back to Pure Motive. If you are investing energy in growth and change out of love for yourself and others and out of the desire to express that love in beneficial ways, not even a little effort goes to waste (as Krishna says in the Gītā). But if your attempts to change are based in self-hatred, you’re probably going to cause more harm to yourself and others than if you consciously decide not to change or grow at all, ever. (That’s actually not possible for a reflective individual, but still.) Probably the most beneficial thing you could do for yourself and others is renounce all attempts to change and grow until you have thorough self-acceptance. The key words there is ‘attempts’ — even without any attempts on your part, if you have a firmly planted seed of self-reflection, life will grow you naturally, and probably do a better job at it.
The Truth to which “I want to be my best self” is a near enemy is this: Consciousness, by its very nature, doesn’t like to stagnate; it enjoys endlessly reinventing itself, and growth is a huge part of that. But this growth doesn’t have an end-point (such becoming as the imaginary person you think you ‘should’ be); embodied Consciousness engages a growth process just because it enjoys growing. The mind loves to create end-points, but the point of going for a walk is just going for a walk, and in the same way, growth is an intrinsically rewarding activity and natural form of expression for a healthy body-mind.
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For more on this teaching, please watch this free video: