Friday, October 16, 2009

On Being A Self-Improvement Project

The point I was wandering around yesterday came at me this morning from Tricycle, from an article by psychiatrist/Zen Master Barry Magid. Here's what I copied into my journal -
When we sit, we realize how unwilling we are to leave anything about ourselves alone. We turn our lives into one endless self-improvement project. . . . Just sitting means just that. That “just” endlessly goes against the grain of our need to fix, transform, and improve ourselves. The paradox of our practice is that the most effective way of transformation is to leave ourselves alone. The more we let everything be just what it is, the more we relax . . .
Are we all like that? I thought it was me, that endless subterranean stretching to be different. To improve this design. There is an often-quoted Buddhist story to the effect that you can't turn a clay tile into a mirror, no matter how much you polish it. Mirrors. Mine tells me I am back to looking like myself this morning. Let me explain.

Yesterday I got a good haircut, the first one I'd had in about a year of being too sick to care. This Ken was a guy I hadn't been to before, and I like what he does to my friend's hair, so I was very relaxed about my needs: "Too much hair!" I told him. We agreed he should cut it to shoulder-length. I didn't even bother explaining that I didn't want my head to look like it belonged on someone else's body, that this is the way I dress, this is me, and I want to look like me. I've been telling hairdressers that for decades, and they don't listen. They imagine a more stylish me. They want to fix me. That's their job.

So I got stylish hair. When Ken handed me the drop-down mirror and turned me to look at myself, "What do you think?" I asked, "Umm, how do I keep it out of my eyes?" I had not forgotten my keen adherence to Grandma's Practical Rule of Dress, which covers the homely needs of the body, like being able to see.

"Like this," he said, and tossed his own head a little, so his bangs fell right. "You do this."

I tried it and it fell right for a second, then slid back. I must have looked dubious.

"Okay," he said. "What I can do is trim it a little."

He did, and it was somewhat better, thank goodness, or how would I have driven home? There I immediately found a barrette and stuck it in to hold back the beautiful wide sweep of wave created by enormous brush rollers. I tried to retain a whiff of the style. But you can't. The style is hair that falls in the eyes. Is that an anti-feminist thing, I wondered idly? A way of impairing women? Perhaps, like wearing high heels, it signals, I may act intelligent, but I'm not, really.

Men don't know from self-improvement, I mean, on average, though I think we might see more Self-Improvement Men in American Buddhist circles, and in the Unitarian church. But in general, a man who wants to Be Someone is more likely to devote himself to power, or to his work. (Being devoted to power, and being Someone through your work, these are also very bad ideas, but not my topic right now.)

But the average woman is a constant personal self-improvement project, with emphasis on how we look. The other day, as I waited in line at Kohl's, I observed how women had armloads of clothes they were buying, that looked like clothes for themselves. Yet each and every one of us looked normal, which is to say fairly dowdy and harassed, they way you look after shopping. What are all those clothes about? They never change us, and we all have enough clothes in our closet to last us the rest of our lives. Those clothes in the checkout line are about magically looking better. Thinner, prettier, not so tired. Improved.

It is almost new moon, I see, what the Chinese call "Empty moon," and I am in a yin phase of my own personal rhythm. So I am content to stop here, not sure whether I have made a point. In fact, yin is not about points, yang is, about arrows and action. Yin is about lying back in the innertube of the day and floating, and just sitting. I think I'll give that a try.
[image: The Chinese character Tao, the Way]

1 comment:

  1. I'd argue that the devotion to power and "being someone" are the stereotypical self-improvement methods of men. I enjoyed this post. There is so much fussing around we all do, which mostly gets us further away from our actual lives.