What’s the hardest job you can think of? Construction, mining? That’s physically-focused. How about brain surgery or an astronaut fixing the space station? These are all very difficult jobs, indeed, no doubts about that. High performance requires lots of dedication, and years of application before an everyday person can claim mastery. But there is one job that is touted to be the toughest of them all. So, what’s it? It is self-improvement.
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” — Leo Tolstoy
Not the “learning to speak in front of a crowd” self-improvement or putting on a 6-pack. No, that’s quite doable by many. It just requires a bit of effort and time. But not so much as an Olympic athlete or a lawyer.
Actually, when self-improvement gets to this level, it is no longer called self-improvement — it’s called cultivation. Just like growing plants, you need to constantly clear out the weeds, remove pests, and make sure the soil is properly hydrated and contains the essential nutrients for sustaining healthy growth. So how difficult can cultivation really be?
Nearly every one of us has tried adopting a better habit in our lifetime. It could be going to the gym, cutting down on junk food, or simply making an effort to not have “one for the road.” A few stick to some new habits, but most quit, and the ones that do stick to it quit after some more time has passed. A study found that New Year resolutions are mostly done by January 19.
That’s only taking the case of individual resolutions (like quiting smoking). Not whole habits (like transforming into a healthy person). But before we go further, here’s one definition of cultivation: Cultivation is the process of improving one’s self, through self-reflection and study, to achieve higher states of being and enlightening on a spiritual level. So does cultivation mean to live as a monk? Monks are cultivators. Well, not the professional ones who take it as a regular job that pays wages and takes care of insurance. Monks are supposed to be cultivators.
The difference between self-help and cultivation
Before the self-help industry was so prevalent, there were only spiritual and religious teachings to be referred for improving oneself. Self-help started getting popular around the later part of the 1930s with Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill becoming the main proponents.
Self-help has always been a younger sibling to serious spiritual endeavors. Self-help is more targeted at individual actions while following a spiritual discipline is life-changing. The former helps in building confidence and getting a date, while the latter helps you live a meaningful life while understanding your purpose in the grand tapestry of things. But then, this begs the question — why improve at all? What’s the purpose? What’s the whole point?
To better yourself is a noble undertaking. The importance of this cannot be simply stated. It’s more of a calling. A deep desire that begins with the question: “Who am I?” What am I doing here? What is my purpose in being alive? Working, eating, sleeping, laughing — is this all there is to it?
To improve yourself begins with a series of questions that make you ponder on the existence of your life and its place in the universe. Most people shut out this nagging feeling of being incomplete with external stimuli, while others, more persistent, look deeper for answers. And then, what they find is that, to know yourself, you need to improve. With improvements made in mind and thought, you are able to understand a bit better. And then, you need to improve more, and the process goes on.
Why is it so difficult?
You may think yourself malleable. You can be whatever you want to be — just the want and skill is enough. This belief has been hammered down through media, education, and entertainment. You just need to believe. But it isn’t that easy, right?
Just on one level, to change yourself physically requires an arduous amount of will, effort, and time for any meaningful transformation. To change and then to sustain the change requires dedication that few ever bother with.
Your body is very adaptable. There are many advantages to this, but as in many cases, there are disadvantages as well. One disadvantage is that your limitation and weakness is a part of you. When you make the effort to change, the whole body resists. The brain, muscles, and nerves collaboratively resist the effort because that’s not who you are.
The part of you that needs rectification has become a strong integrated unit of your whole self. So when you want to make a change, it’s like tearing yourself apart. The body resists. The mind resists. You have to summon extraordinary will to make the desired change. Then, you have to make continued effort to sustain the changes until, one day, it has become a part of you.
That’s like taking a piece of steel (i.e., your stubborn character), breaking it down, and forging it right by pounding on it with a hammer over a flame. You’ve got to do this over and over again until you have fixed all your flaws. Can you endure? Do you have it in you to go the whole mile?
When someone has hurt you, belittles you, offended you, betrayed you — can you let it go when you’re torn apart inside and are hanging on by the end of your wits? Anything more and you will crack. At that very moment, like the needle on the camel’s back, another trouble hits you from nowhere. What do you do? Do you have it in you to endure and keep on moving forward?
When you do this and make the tremendous effort required to improve, then you have done something that few people on this Earth can do — cultivation. And that’s why it’s the toughest job in the universe.