The Zen of you can’t change yourself

You can’t change yourself, so don’t even try.

I know that’s not what the infomercials and self-help books tell you. But they’re wrong. You can’t change. Like a fat man staring into an empty fridge—there’s nothing there. So, stop it.

Why can’t you change yourself? Because the whole idea of change is an illogical construct. It’s something you just made up to make yourself feel good (or bad).

But I’m getting ahead of myself, the reason I believe people can’t really change is because there is no self to change. Ok, let me clarify my statement. Or try to.

The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki once said: “There are, strictly speaking, no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity.” To really comprehend what he meant by this, is to understand the Zen Buddhist notion of “non-self”. In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit) and in Japanese muga, means literally no-self, selfless, or without self. It refers to the doctrine of “non-self”, that there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul or essence in living beingsBut for most of us, there is a very real sense of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an independent individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will.

But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity.

But for most of us, the sense of our self is as an integrated individual inhabiting a body. I think it is helpful to distinguish between the two ways of thinking about the self that William James talked about. There is conscious awareness of the present moment that he called the “I,” but there is also a self that reflects upon who we are in terms of our history, our current activities and our future.

James called this aspect of the self, “me” which most of us would recognize as our personal identity—who we think we are. However, I think that both the “I” and the “me” are actually ever-changing narratives generated by our brain to provide a coherent framework to organize the output of all the factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors.

Therefore, to think you can change or improve or even transcend the yourself is a waste of time. Why? Because there is no self to transcend or improve.

Yesterday, I was me. Today, I am me. Did I change?

Both yes and no are correct answers, depending on how I define change. Technically, you are both always changing and never changing. It just depends on how you look at it.

What you decide is change or not is an imaginary line drawn in your head. I could decide that “changing myself” means having a lot of money. I’ll then sit around beating myself up for not being able to “change” for the rest of my life. Therefore, that’s not a very useful definition of “change.”

Or I could decide that “changing myself” means start drinking a class of water per day. If that’s the case, then change is fairly easy. But does my definition of “change” mean anything? Not really.

When people say to their loved ones  that they’re finally going to “change” themselves, they are promising something imaginary and made up. If they used to lie and now they stopped lying, have they “changed”? Are they permanently and irrevocably “fixed”? Will they never lie again? And even if they don’t, will it matter?

We don’t know what change is because we don’t know what we are. If I wake up tomorrow and do the exact opposite of everything I do today, am I a changed person? Or am I simply the same person who decided to try something different?

Here’s the problem with using the word “change:” it gets your identity involved. And when you get your identity involved, you become really emotionally attached to imaginary things. You beat yourself up and blame others and decide that you are, in fact, hopeless.

It’s one thing to say, “I want to start going to the gym every week.” It’s another to say, “It’s time I finally change and become the type of person who goes to the gym each week.”

The first statement is simple. You want to go to the gym. So, you go (or not).

The second statement implies that to go to the gym, you must completely reinvent yourself. And that raises the emotional stakes. If you succeed, you’ll gain this blissful feeling of being a “new person,” which will last until the next time you feel low and want to “change” again. If you fail, you’ll punish yourself for your being a failure.

But the truth is, there is no-self to change.

And that’s the problem with getting your so called identity involved. If/when you fail at something, you start thinking: “Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’m not one of those gym people. Maybe this just isn’t me. So why even try?” Because you’ve decided these arbitrary actions represent the totality of your character, you will view your failure to put on gym or yoga pants as a verdict on your value as a human being.

You will hate yourself. And you will be less motivated to “change” or do anything else in the future.

On the flip side, if you succeed, like all drugs, you’ll get this nice high and momentarily escape your sense of yourself. But soon, that high will wear off, and you’ll need to define for yourself a new type of “change” to accomplish, and you’ll pursue that. You’ll then become addicted to personal change the same way someone is addicted to cocaine or addicted to drinking.

Here’s a tip: there’s no such thing as a “gym person.” There are just people who go to the gym. Similarly, there’s no such thing as a “productive person.” There are just people who do productive things fairly often. There’s no such thing as a “lovable person.” There are just people who aren’t selfish.

Exactly what Suzuki meant by: “There are, strictly speaking, no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity.”

Instead, think of your life as a long sequence of actions and decisions. Remove your identity from it and just do it because it’s a good thing to do.

Keep your “self” out of your decisions, because most likely, it’s not about “you.” Simply ask yourself, “Is this a good thing to do?” Yes? Then go do it.

Oh, you failed to do it? Is it still a good thing to do? Yes? Then go do it again. And if, at any point, you realize that it wasn’t as good as you thought, then don’t do it again.

Simple as that.

Most of us who feel stuck in certain habits are stuck because we’re emotionally embedded in unhealthy behaviors. A smoker doesn’t just smoke cigarettes. They develop a whole identity around smoking. It alters their social life, their eating and sleeping habits, how they see themselves and others. They become “the smoker” to their friends and family. They develop a relationship with cigarettes the same way you and I develop a relationship with a pet or a favorite toy.

When someone decides to “change” themselves and quit smoking, they are essentially attempting to “change” their entire identity—all of the relationships, habits, and assumptions that have gone into the years of doing a singular thing. No wonder they fail.

The trick to quitting smoking (or to changing any habit) is to recognize that your identity—that elaborate mental framework you devised in your mind and labeled “me”—doesn’t actually exist. It is arbitrary. It is a facade. And it can be raised or dropped at will. You are not a smoker. You are a person who chooses to smoke. You are not a night person. You are a person who chooses to be active at night and sleep through the morning. You are not unproductive. You are a person who currently chooses to do things that do not feel useful. You are not unlovable. You are a person who currently feels unloved.

And changing these actions is as simple as… changing your actions. One action at a time. Forget labeling it. Forget social accountability (in fact, research has found that sharing goals with others can often backfire). Forget making a big hoo-ha-ha about who you are or what you are or what anyone thinks about you.

Because it doesn’t matter. Your identity is this made up thing that you’re emotionally attached to. It’s a mirage in the desert. An empty fridge. And the quickest way to change yourself is to realize that there’s no real self to change.