The Key to Self-Improvement

From our e-book “Filling our Life with Celebration”


Have you ever wondered why two persons can read the same spiritual or self-improvement book but only one benefits from it, and the other is no different after reading it? The key to improving ourselves is taking responsibility to change our own circumstances and taking action. The person who did not benefit from the book may have enjoyed the book tremendously and may have been motivated by it but he did not put into action the recommendations in the book.

He may have read it just to gather facts to further support his beliefs and conditioning. Do you notice how we tend to read the books of our own religions and ignore does of other religions? That is because we do not want our beliefs and conditioning to be challenged; that would make our ‘self’ smaller and weaker.

The other person would also be motivated but the difference is that he took action and he persevered. It would be a pity if we tried out a practice but give up before the effects are just about to be felt. If we are trying to lose weight, we know that it is a slow process. We will only achieve a notable difference after a few weeks of persevering at the exercise. This is the same with spiritual evolution and the improvements in our mental well-being. It is so subtle that it is not noticeable. It is only when we look back at ourselves after a year or two that we are able to notice the growth which we have made.

It is useful to analyse the things we do and increase those that benefits us and remove those that are not. We can generally categorise our activities into four main areas:

a) Short term pleasure; long term suffering

These are activities that bring pleasure in the short term but are detrimental to our future such as taking intoxicants. These are the activities which we want to reduce.

b) Short term suffering; long term pleasure

These are activities that we do not enjoy but we do it because it brings us some future benefit. For some of us, our jobs apparently fall into this category. We struggle and work long hours while telling ourselves that we will be happy once we get that promotion or reach the top of the ladder. I have yet to meet anyone who is happy merely because he has reached the top of the ladder. The long term pleasure may not materialize.

When I was young, I noticed that those at the top tend to be angry and stressed all the time. I read some motivational books that promote goal-setting and most motivational books preach this. This was confusing for me because I was not sure if I wanted to be where those at the top were or if it was a worthwhile goal at all!

Similarly, if we are not careful, our spiritual practices may fall into this category as well. Our practices become a struggle to reap a future benefit of enlightenment or for some of us, some supernatural ability like astral travelling, seeing past lives and so on. We then forget to be happy in the present moment.

c) Short term pleasure; long term pleasure
These are activities which are enjoyable and which are also beneficial to our future. To some fortunate few, their jobs fall into this category. This is a blessing.

Playing with our kids is another example. Tim’s parents did not form the habit of playing and talking with him. When they do talk, it is often to admonish or correct him. As an adult, Tim finds it difficult to communicate with his parents because they never developed the habit to do so. This is one way to look at karma; a habitual pattern developed in the past. It will take tremendous effort to break that habitual pattern.

It is important to design our saddhana or spiritual practice such that it becomes enjoyable and fall into this category. This way, we can stop complaining about not having enough time just like we do not complain about not having enough time to watch television. We are always able to find time for that!

d) Neutral

These are activities that do not bring any short or long term benefits but which we carry out due to habit. Watching television when there is nothing good on is an example. Most of the articles in the daily newspaper are not very helpful but serves merely as a distraction to pass time. Reducing these activities can free up more time for those activities that fall under the third category above.


When we help others, it is important to motivate them to take responsibility for their own happiness and to take the necessary action to bring themselves out of their current predicament. It brings relief to provide a listening ear but the relief if temporary if it does not provide sufficient impetus for the other person to take responsibility and action to improve his situation. Do lot allow them to believe that they are victims of circumstances and lack the power to lift themselves up. If a person complains of loneliness, we can suggest that he meditates on the feeling of loneliness or spend more
time exercising or reading. Positive and immediate actions will often bring immediate improvements. It is therefore important that we do not encourage them to remain in the state of helplessness. Our problems can lead to growth and spiritual evolution only if we take responsibility and action.



  1. Does your spiritual practices fall under the second or third category. If it falls under the second category, you are probably expecting too much from yourself. Change the timing and/or intensity of your practice so that it shifts to the third category. Look for activities that fall under the fourth category and see if you could reduce them to free up time for your spiritual practice.
  2. Review the problem that you are now facing and think of the actions that you can take to improve on your current circumstance. If you are worried about something, think of the actions you can take in the event what you worry about happens. Thinking about this will make the problem smaller.
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